in Language & Culture

In a society marked by democracy, words have become our biggest weapons. They hold significant power to achieve change through articulate messages designed to influence the masses. This being the case, language has become a reflection of culture, contributing to our understanding of what is “good” or “bad.”  Linguists are now drawing attention to ethical language, underlining the use of derogatory language and its contribution to creating a hostile environment.

Derogatory Language

To understand the powerful and potentially damaging effects of derogatory language, it is essential to first define the term.  In modern society, derogatory words are used to convey hatred or contempt through language that is highly charged emotionally, and to defame the character of someone through false accusations. At times, it is also used to dehumanize people, such as in the case of words used to describe those under government control. Words like “criminal” or “offender” put focus on individuals that have committed crimes or made bad choices at some point in their lives, simultaneously stripping them of any positive titles they may have once held. No longer seen as parents, neighbors, or co-workers, they often face difficulty in finding employment, even after paying their debt to society. While past confinement can determine a point in a persons’ life and experience, some experts say derogatory terms should not become the new identity of that human being.

Derogatory language is also prominent in the world of business, albeit in a much less transparent way. More often than not, big corporations will refer to their employees as “heads” or “head counts.” This may seem like an innocent habit, as it is impossible for the executive of a large business to remember the names of each and every person, but it can dehumanize people, making them feel like a resource instead of an asset.  As a company grows, it is all too easy to think of them as a corporate machine, forgetting that people are the most important part of a business.  It is therefore important for companies to realize that while language may seem too stylistic at times, it does matter.  As history shows, words used casually one day can potentially be seen as malicious the next due to the changing social norms.

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Ethical language is an almighty tool. It can elevate people towards sharing positivity and beauty, but it can also be manipulated to complicate a given situation. Until one feels the power of language on their own skin, it may be hard to believe that a derogatory phrase can be so influential as to make people feel their humanity is being undercut. It has the power to make or break us, thus once and for all debunking the phrase we often hear: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”



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