Thursday, October 31, 2013
Why new words?
Over the next several months, I will be writing a series of blog posts that explain some of the less familiar terms that I either coined and/or otherwise forwarded in my writings, especially in Whipping Girl and my new book Excluded: Making Feministand Queer Movements More Inclusive.
I am doing this for several reasons:
1) I want these definitions to be accessible via the Internet. Many people have never heard of Excluded or Whipping Girl, or they may not have access to these books. So if they just so happen to read or hear another person use any of these terms, I would like them to be easily google-able. For this reason, the title of each post will take the form of “What is [the term in question]?” so that our search engine overlords can more readily find the answer.
2) Relatedly, someone who is writing an Internet article or blog post who uses any of these terms can simply link to these pages, thus circumventing having to provide a definition or introduction to the term(s) themselves.
3) Sometimes other people come to use a term/concept in a manner different than I initially used it. Or they may question why I bothered to create or forward the term/concept in the first place. So these posts will allow me to add some context regarding my original intentions and why I thought the term/concept was necessary in the first place.
Often discussions about coining or forwarding new terminology veer into (what I call) the “Why new words?” debate. For instance, some people may protest by saying something like, “I don’t understand why we need these newfangled words, can’t we just get by with the words we already have?” Such arguments seem oblivious to the fact that every single word in the English language was once a new word! New words and phrases are created all the time, and they tend to stick when they fill a niche that had been previously vacant.
We communicate through words, through language. And as we learn more about the world, and as our world changes, we constantly invent new terminology to express and explain what we see. Concepts from the banal to the highly technical garner their own labels: reality TV, romantic comedy, fan fiction, product placement, junk mail, social media, selfies, telecommuting, buzzword, trickle-down economics, debt ceiling, SuperPAC, climate change, carbon footprint, and good cholesterol (to name a very very tiny handful). None of these terms existed fifty years ago, but they are all useful today as quick shorthand to convey a more complex concept or phenomenon to other people.
So when people selectively say “I don’t understand why we need new words” whenever I (or others) forward new language to describe how sexism works or to convey LGBTQIA+ perspectives, it really does feel like they are singling out activist terminology. The unspoken message is: “I am totally fine with new words provided that they do not challenge my beliefs about gender and sexuality, or challenge the hierarchies and double standards that I unconsciously harbor.”
A second variation of the “Why new words?” debate that I sometimes hear is the complaint that new terminology merely results in the proliferation of jargon that nobody understands. The word “jargon” is invariably used as a pejorative here, the connotation being that I (and others) are purposefully using esoteric language in order to alienate other people. That is not what I am doing at all. Unlike other people who write about gender and sexism (for instance, those who write primarily for academic audiences), I always try to make my books as accessible as possible, and I always try to thoroughly explain potentially unfamiliar terms and concepts whenever I introduce them. Both Whipping Girl and Excluded begin with a chapter wherein I define much of the terminology that I use throughout the book. Indeed, if I wanted to alienate people by using needlessly fancy language, then I wouldn’t have bothered writing this series in the first place!
What some people call “jargon,” other people call necessary language. Physicists inevitably create “jargon” to describe how subatomic particles behave; doctors create “jargon” to distinguish between different diseases and injuries to the body; sports professionals create “jargon” to describe different plays or to determine how well players are performing; musicians create “jargon” to describe different musical keys, time signatures, and cord progressions. Along similar lines, those of us who are involved in feminism and queer/LGBTQIA+ activism, by necessity, create “jargon” to describe the phenomena that we observe, and to analyze and challenge various forms of sexism and marginalization.
As a writer who is participating in dialogue with other feminists and queer activists, it is necessary that I use some of this language. The alternative approach—purposefully not using such language—would result in me being unable to adequately broach certain important topics. Given this, I try my best to strike a balance between engaging in these more complex and nuanced discussions about gender and sexism, while simultaneously opening the door for people who are not already familiar with such terms/concepts to be introduced to these fundamental ideas.
So anyway, that is the rationale for this series—stay tuned for future posts!
One final note: I will not be writing up a separate post for cis terminology (e.g., cisgender, cissexual, cissexism, cis privilege) as I already wrote an article to that effect back in 2009.