Sorry Paula Deen, But Words CAN Really Hurt You

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.

– Rudyard Kipling

sticks and stones
sticks and stones and words (Photo credit: Lisa monster)

So much of my life is consumed by language. As a parent, I read all the What To Expect  books before and during my children’s younger years. I remember reading that to develop language, parents should speak everything out loud so the child would learn to acquire the correct vocabulary. I happily spent my days with baby Lily repeating “book”, “dog”, “peaches”, “Daddy”, “tree”, “bird” with endless enthusiasm. I wondered it strangers thought I was losing my mind. I never was the outspoken type myself.

Not surprisingly, it worked. She acquired lots of language, and with the help of ‘Baby Signs‘ became quite adept at expressing her feelings at a very young age. I loved it. I knew when she was happy, confused, and frustrated, and whenever she flashed that huge, drooly grin I knew the mind-numbing repetition was all worth it. Of course, until the day she oh-so-appropriately exclaimed “God dammit” at two years old. I had some explaining to do, but it gave me a strong reminder of the power of language.

My son would talk to anyone. I pitied the poor workers that came to remodel our house when he was two years old. He followed around the plumbers, the electricians, and anyone who would pay the smallest amount of attention to his burgeoning vocabulary. His precociousness usually garnered a smile from them as they went about their work, often engaging him in dialogue. He beamed and kept right on talking.

As a middle school English teacher, I start each year with an intense study of connotation and denotation of language. We read Lois Lowry’s novel, The Giver, and discuss precision of language in great detail. I know my students have heard the ‘sticks and stones’ nursery rhyme, but I want to break down that notion. I disagree. Words can really hurt you. Badly.

The real origin of that nursery rhyme can be traced back to the late 1800s, when it was presented in a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church as

Sticks and stones will break my bones
But words will never harm me.”

As any socially aware person knows, incidents of bullying and racism still exist in our world, and with the advent of technology and the ability to speed up communication, words spread faster than ever. We need to teach our children that words WILL harm them, and that just ignoring them isn’t enough. We need to choose our language carefully, always thinking about what the connotation is and the historical implications that may forever be associated with them.

Sorry, Paula Deen, but you’re learning this lesson the hard way.

FC 250 Grand Marshal, Paula Deen
FC 250 Grand Marshal, Paula Deen (Photo credit: Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway)

Celebrities have the unfortunate responsibility of being scrutinized for their every action. As much as technology and social media helps actors, musicians, writers, artists, and even chefs to spread their message and boost their sales, the flip side is the enormous social responsibility that goes along with it. Celebrities can choose to use their words to promote positive social change, like Macklemore does, or they can carelessly toss about hurtful and discriminatory language that does nothing but show their ignorance and perpetuate stereotypes. Sorry, Paula Deen. Apparently no amount of butter, sugar and friendly ‘y’alls’ can grease your way out of this one.

Some may say that the media  is over-reacting. That Paula Deen really isn’t a racist, a sexist, or anything else that she’s accused of. They may say that everyone makes mistakes and she should be forgiven. They may even say that anyone over the age of 60 should not be chastised for using the ‘n’ world, especially if they grew up in the South.

I don’t buy it.

There are no do-overs here. Once a word has escaped our mouths, it cannot be retrieved. It hangs there, in space, like a cloud that could either dissipate or drop hail. But it’s there for all to see. Words do hurt. Names do hurt. Stereotypes are perpetuated through ignorant use of language and irresponsible adults who think that if they get ‘caught’, they can just deny their culpability and say they really didn’t mean it.

How does that feel to the gay person who is called a ‘f’?

A black person who is called a ‘n’?

A woman who is called a ‘b”?

A Latino who is called a ‘s’?

A child who is called anything they deem hurtful, deflating, or just plain mean?

So thank you, Food Network, and all the other corporate sponsors who are taking this opportunity to stand up for language. You did the right thing. Don’t back down to those who say she really didn’t mean it. Because even if she didn’t, she said it. She had a choice with her language, and she threw down words that hurt. And she got caught. There’s a lot of kids out there who are watching her, and they need to know the power of language.

I hope we can all learn from this.

Sticks and stones may break your bones,

and words CAN really hurt you.

Sticks and Stones
Sticks and Stones (Photo credit: alsokaizen)



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Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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