Little Words

I’m a PHD student. I can be sensitive about words. Words, after all, make up a big part of my life right now. We graduate students are especially trained to watch what we say and how we say it, because words convey thoughts, thoughts influence actions, and by actions the world is changed. (In particular, it can change whether or not your dissertation committee says the all-important little four-letter word, “pass.”)

Thanks to this sensitivity, I can’t help but notice the language used by myself and others talking about illness. Of whatever type. They’re Little Words. Here are a few favorites:

  • “Only.” For example, you only needed 6 bags of fluid and glucose and a blood transfusion before you stopped fainting.
  • “Just.” As in, Just needed to lie down.
  • “Little,” or worse still, “little bit.” She is a little bit nauseated.
  • “Wonky.” Her balance is a bit wonky.
  • “Tiny.” There is a tiny problem with your immune system.
  • “Ticker” or the like. “How’s the old ticker?”
  • “Sorry.” A personal favorite; I’ve practically substituted it in for the word “hello.”

We need to be able to use funny words to make a stressful situation less intense. We need words to express a degree of something – “a lot,””a little” – and sometimes it is hard to be more specific than that. We need words to exclude things – “only that book,” and not all the others.

What I hear far more often, though, are words not being used to express whether something is “little” in size, but being used to belittle. Funny words used in decidedly non-funny ways. Intensifying words being used to minimize feelings. Adjectives somehow being used not to describe, but to distort what is really happening. Quaint euphemisms even for parts of the body that not only does everyone have, but aren’t even usually deemed socially unacceptable

Yes, my concern over these little words is pet peeve. But words have an odd way not just of conveying thoughts, but influencing how thoughts are formed as well. The language that people use, and become accustomed to, helps shape thoughts. Think about a person who has grown up hearing that menstrual pain is “just a little women’s problem.” How hard will it be to reshape that thinking to accept that, in some cases, it’s not “just a little” anything, and that this pain might be the symptom of a much more serious condition? How much longer will it take to get medical help? The little words we use shape how our bosses, teachers, friends, and relatives view us – and how we view our own experiences.

I use these words myself far more often than I should. I apologize constantly for being me, because being chronically ill means frequently having trouble with “normal” life and social expectations. I slip into saying “it’s just a bit worse.” I didn’t “just” need to lie down: I needed to lie down. Full stop, period, end of thought. I am working on changing how I use these little words, because in my position, the little words I use shape the much larger thoughts of my students.

Little words are important. Tomorrow a nation will vote, and in the USA the weight of little words is going to come to bear. All the past little words of candidates and little words of bills will translate into action. Have a care with the little words. They can mean big things.


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