What’s in a word?
Whether we know it or not, the language we use has a powerful effect on our well-being. It impacts everything from healthcare to warfare.
Words Create Health
Consider the work done by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer. She asked why when cancer goes away we call it a “remission” but when a cold goes away we call it a “cure”. Both illnesses may come back, but one word expects it to and the other does not. Looking into this word choice alone, she found that those who call themselves cured of cancer typically enjoy healthier and fuller lives, whereas people who call themselves in remission have higher depression scores. The word choice prompted a new psychology which created a better health state.
Words Change Reality
The 19th century Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure also explored the power of words. By comparing languages, he showed how the words available in our native language affect the way we perceive reality. For example, in English, we have the words “river” and “stream.” In the French language, “fleuve” and “rivière.”
The words in English differ on the basis of size – a river is larger than a stream. The French words instead differ in that a fleuve flows to the sea while a rivière does not. Because we think in terms of the concepts provided by our language, an English speaker and a French speaker may see the exact same flowing water, but they understand it in very different ways. One understands reality by judging size, the other by judging direction. (Look at the image above, which did you look at: size or direction?)
Words Start Wars
And lest you think that such differences in perception and meaning are trivial, here is one final example. Academic and activist Noam Chomsky made a similar point in politics as the United States ramped up for war in Iraq. Along with others, he distinguished between a “preemptive” war and a “preventive” war.
The two differ because the word preempt means that your enemy is about to attack and you simply beat them to the punch. By branding the war as “preemptive” in the media, all discussions of the war supported its basic premise: the word implied both the existence of weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi intent to attack.
And most of us accepted the term without question. But in reality, the war was preventive: it was meant to prevent the country from gaining the means to attack. Because most of the critics accepted the preemptive branding but opposed the war itself, they actually implied that Iraq had WMDs and wanted to attack, but that we shouldn’t do anything about it. No wonder they seemed so weak on national defense.
The Final Word
Language has a very powerful ability to sculpt the world around us. Try to pay attention to the phrases and talking points you hear on TV – ask yourself what they imply. Check out the origin of words and see where they come from. And most importantly choose your own language more carefully, because words mean everything.
Michael Venn says
While some may argue that words and names are irrelevant to the true essence of a thing i.e. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” I think you’re right that in the certain contexts words can drastically influence how we perceive things. Very interesting and thought provoking post. Thanks!