Words. Words. Words.

by Alexa Padgett

Words. Words. Words.

 Hamlet informs another that’s what he’s reading. And we’re still reading them—those little or enormous or hard to pronounce words that help us shape our concepts and constructs of reality. Of personhood. Of self.

And that’s what I want to focus on today: words and how we use them unconsciously.

I heard an ad for next week’s Hidden Brain podcast that crystallized a thought I’d been trying to glean: when we give any word a gender, we change the words we use to describe said word. The example used in the advert was “bridge.” When a bridge is female in a language, then it is described as beautiful, elegant, etc., but if a bridge is masculine, we tend to describe it as strong, sturdy, etc.

 A side note: if you listen to the podcast, you might find I paraphrased the word-choice above. In my defense, I had a chatty seven-year-old in the car talking about Wonder Woman’s inability to fly while the ad was on. So…yeah, this is what my brain must plow through to have a thought.

What does it mean to be a man today? That’s the premise of the Death, Sex, and Money podcast titled Manhood, Now.

 Seems a relevant topic for us all in light of the Me, Too movement. That podcast—and the survey created in conjunction with 538 peaked my interest, which, in turn, lead me back to one of my favorite books of my youth, The Catcher in the Rye. Published in 1951, Holden Caulfield talks about masculinity and manhood thus:

“Every time you mention some guy that’s strictly a bastard— very mean, or very conceited and all— and when you mention it to the girl, she’ll tell you he has an inferiority complex. Maybe he has, but that still doesn’t keep him from being a bastard, in my opinion.”

 Succinct and still spot-on, in my opinion.

Now, to bring this back around to writing today…I write in a variety of genres. Urban fantasy, mystery, and romance are my main three. Each is its own type of story—its own fantasy I’m weaving for a specific reader. Those words, on paper, create something someone else can enjoy, get lost in, maybe learn a bit about themselves or their culture. So…I wondered what a modern writer had to say about men and masculinity—about the words that surround the idea of personhood? A lot apparently.

 A recent quote that stuck out as I listened to the Manhood, Now podcast is from John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down: “I is the hardest word to define.”

Then, now, always will “I” be challenging to define. Because I is me and I am not you. Stephen King wrote, “The mind can calculate, but the spirit yearns, and the heart knows what the heart knows.”

I think this is the crux of the matter. We assign gender and connotations to words based on previous generations’ culture. I’ve read my kids the Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan, which has a gender fluid character, Alex Fierro. I like Alex, especially this exchange:

“So can I ask…?” I waved my hands vaguely. I didn’t have the words.

“How it does work?” She smirked. “As long as you don’t ask me to represent every gender-fluid person for you, okay? I’m not an ambassador. I’m not a teacher or a poster child. I’m just”—she mimicked my hand-waving—“me. Trying to be me as best I can.” 

Aren’t we all? As writers, as people. This world is confusing and often painful, maybe even profoundly depressing.

Here’s the conclusion I came to after dropping off the chatty seven-year-old at soccer camp (“Mom, how come girls don’t get the same recognition on the Olympics as boys? Is it because women look weaker?”): We are never free from previous generations use of words or from those generations’ strictures. We can spin 180 degrees, we can negate former ideals, but those histories, those years and decades and centuries of meaning assigned to words, assigned to gender, remain.

 But it’s what we, the storytellers, of today do with those words, with their past connotations and their potential futures, that matter—that have intrinsic and sometimes remarkable value.

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2 thoughts on “Words. Words. Words.

  1. Another great post! I find this tricky to negotiate with historical fiction – the language of the time might show authenticity but it doesn’t necessarily resonate with today’s readers. The same goes for character development – it’s a tricky balancing act.

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  2. This was such a thought-provoking post, Alexa! And your seven-year-old is a wise girl, clearly in her mother’s mold. It is important to pay attention to gender-assigned meanings of words, especially in the genre in which I work, middle-grade and young adult fiction. Gender identification has become so much more complex in the world in which our young people are growing up and writers must be attuned and sensitive to this.

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