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Go Ahead, Say the Wrong Thing


Aug 5 2014
Never say, ‘never say’: How our lists and language rules may be over-the-top.

Wrong Words and the Word-loving Missionary

Rachel Marie Stone

Someone said the wrong thing to me…and I survived.

You've no doubt come across one of those lists telling you the 10 or 12 or 20 "things you should never say" to women, pregnant women, people who are sober, pastor's children, adoptive parents, and so on.

These "listicles" have become popular and highly sharable as Christians take one another to task online for using the "wrong" words to speak of someone or something. Even when the issue is relatively minor and no offense was intended, we're quick to point out the wrong use of a given word.

I'll admit it: I'm a logophile—a lover of words. I like precise language, and I don't find it arduous to stay current on the terms considered polite and respectful. I prefer expressions like "a person experiencing homelessness" to "homeless person" because the former puts the person first and does not define the person by the unfortunate situation in which they happen to be.

And yet I am not at all a fan of these endless "what not to say" lists, or of the vigilante language-policing I see in online spaces and in real life. I don't like to see well-intentioned people called on the carpet for perceived terminological infractions.

In her nonfiction essay "Puritans and Prigs," the novelist Marilynne Robinson recounts one such incident, in which a woman publicly embarrassed an older "very generous spirited man" for a minor slip in usage—something along the lines of saying Hispanic instead of Latino.

Robinson points out that arrogance of the woman's correction in this instance:

The woman had simply made a demonstration of the fact that her education was more recent, more fashionable, and more extensive than his. […] To be able to defend magnanimity while asserting class advantage!

When we create lists of things never to say or publicly rebuke people over what amount to trifling missteps in their language, do we not often do out of a sense of pride: that we, not they, know the right words; that we, not they, are righteous in our indignation, even if their intentions were innocuous? (Would I rebuke the octogenarian at the nursing home who whistles and calls me "darling" for his sexist behavior? Never!

Just before I returned from a very difficult time as a mission worker in sub-Saharan Africa, I talked to my therapist on Skype. She'd been a mission worker herself, and understood my anxiety:

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