Weekly Digest: Words Matter

This week my World Lit students have been considering issues of language in Salman Rushdie’s “The Courter” and Edwidge Danticat’s “Children of the Sea.”  Go read them.  I will wait…

They asked me why I end with Danticat’s story–“it is so sad,” they lament.

I tell them:  “The story is a paean to the importance of writing. That writing keeps up alive.”

So it comes as no surprise that this week I am writing about issues of language–in all forms–to help us think about the ways we construct our own identities and the definitions we use to create these identities.

I have been teaching–and subsequently grading essays–for twenty years.  In the beginning of my career, I picked up on every instance of pronoun/antecedent agreement, our tendency as writers to slip into the plural “they” when writing about a singular antecedent.  But I am evolving.  I see that there is something new at stake with this agreement, something that means the difference between someone living through the night or not as they struggle with issues of gender identity (a very smart undergrad soon to be graduate student used this way of describing the urgency of pronouns in my Women’s and Gender Studies course, and I am indebted to him for putting it so eloquently).

Of all the places that might publish an article on this issue, I never expected to name the Wall Street Journal.  But, hey, maybe they are evolving as well?

Ben Zimmer brought this issue of pronoun usage to the attention of readers in his piece “‘They,’ the Singular Pronoun, Gets Popular.”

Lately, transgender issues have been driving the call for a more inclusive pronoun. The singular “they” avoids having to assign a static role to someone transitioning from one gender to another. And many who identify as transgender or “gender fluid” would prefer the use of the pronoun “they” rather than “he” or “she.”

I know it might be hard to get the world of gender identification to change overnight (I immediately changed my FB gender identity to “cis female” when we got the opportunity; here’s a glossary of your 51 choices).  I get that all of the pronouns and terms get clunky.  I watch my students struggle with using “zim” in their essays on Lois Gould’s “Baby X.” (Go read it. I will wait.)  So perhaps we can use this gender neutral marker already?  I have stopped correcting the agreement.  I have been pasting a link to the essay in my comments to they can see why I am noting the pronoun.  I am hoping these small steps will make language more inclusive for all 51 genders.

Another word made news this week:  NO.  Bud Light decided to promote rape culture with its #upforwhatever labels.  Take a breath before you look at this:


Breathtaking in its stupidity, right?  Is there not one person on that marketing team that said, “Uh, guys (yes, I am assuming it is mostly guys), I kind of think this promotes rape?” They pulled it.  Big deal.  Damage done.  Rape culture reified once again.

If I drank Bud Light, I would boycott them.  But I have been saying no to swill for a long time.

Names matter as well.  I struggled for a long time with taking my partner’s last name.  Sometimes I feel like a feminist sellout, even though I just added zim’s name (see what I did there?!) to my already three names.  From Tennessee,

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit last year on behalf of Dr. Carl Abramson and Kimberly Sarubbi of Brentwood after the state refused to allow the couple to give their third child the last name Sabr. The name is a combination of both parents’ last names.

An attorney for the ACLU says that the lawsuit was dismissed Thursday and the state issued a birth certificate with the surname that the parents chose for the child.

As said partner said to me when I shared this story with zim, “Why does the state care?”  Good question.  Because undoing partriarchal language structures–seeing the couple as a new, equal entity requiring a new word–causes anxiety.  Enough anxiety that the state tried to stop it.

Words matter in the political realm as well.  The NYT ran a thoughtful piece, “What It Really Means to Call Hillary Clinton ‘Polarizing” a few weeks ago.

People often use “polarizing” as a place holder for words like “inflammatory” or “strongly disliked.” Reporters love the word because it allows them to sound noncommittal and nonjudgmental. It offers them neutrality, limp and passive though it may be. In saying that someone is polarizing, they are saying, “There is division, but we won’t tell you whether or not it matters.”

I love what Mark Leibovich does in this piece:  takes one word and plays with it.  Shows us why it matters.

Oh, and Harry Potter has done a ton to dismantle racism and sexism.  Really.  NPR says so:


Finally, when it comes to writing matters, Robin Black published the op-ed “What’s So Great About Young Writers?” in the NYT arguing that we shouldn’t be judging writers based on their age, that emerging writers can emerge at a variety of ages.  I love that she complicates these trendy prizes by showing their inherent bias toward those of financial privilege.

I do consider this to be a feminist issue — but not only that. Youthful achievement is often linked to privilege. Not everyone can afford to write when young. Some are already working more than one job. Others are raising children, as I was for many years. Still others may not feel safe expressing themselves, for any number of reasons. I teach, and it is impossible to exaggerate how much time I put into giving women “permission” to write, a process that often includes encouraging them to tape a piece of paper to their computers that says, “No one ever has to read a word I write” — a trick that worked for me.

Intersectionality in the age of publishing: convincing women that spending time writing matters.  Convincing those with serious financial concerns that their voices matter as well.

Your voice matters.  Get writing.



  1. […] I watched John Oliver skewer the Bud Light campaign I wrote about last week, I felt less alone.  Often I feel like I am shouting into a canyon and all I hear is my own echo: […]

  2. marlanaesquire · · Reply

    Woohoo! Our voices DO matter!

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