What if We Considered our Words More Carefully?

In working with college students for the past few years, and having spoken quite a few thoughtless words myself, I’ve come to realize that even when we don’t mean for them to, words carry significant weight. Allow me a couple of ‘for instances’ and then I’ll leave it open for you to comment.

There are two words in particular that I have worked on eliminating from my vocabulary unless in their appropriate and specific context. Often times these words are used to refer to things, situations, and even people, that are “less than stellar” in the user’s eyes.

The first word is retarded. For instance, if a guy thinks a particular movie was done poorly, instead of specifically talking of what he didn’t like he’ll rather say, “That movie was retarded.” Seems like not a big deal, right? I submit that it is wrong. I no longer associate the word retarded with a generic dislike for something or someone, but instead think about specific people who are, in fact, retarded–mentally disabled. I think of friends who have family members that are mentally handicapped. I think of the person I see at the mall or who greets me at Wal-Mart on occasion. As a father I cannot help but think, what if Ben or another child is retarded, how much more careful and personal would my use of the word be?Like the next word, changing our patterns of speech is going to require drawing closer to the person described (not defined) by the word. I have a hard time believing that anyone who volunteers time to work at a home for the mentally handicapped would drop the word retarded in a cavalier manner. Embracing the fullness of a word like this will require drawing near.

A second word, and I’ll not go on ad nauseam with examples, is the word gay. There is an obvious context for this word when speaking of a homosexual person or the community therein. What you may not have known is that gay can also refer to a professor you simply don’t like or a decision made by an authority figure in your life with which you disagree. “That prof is gay.” “Did you see that dropped pass? That was gay.” Like retarded, gay is not simply an adjective for many people; it’s personal. It’s life. Friends, family members, fellow church goers…real people are gay. That’s why I don’t toss the word around. You never know when someone in your circle is themselves gay but hasn’t said it out loud. Or if someone you’re around has a family member or friend either at home in homosexuality or fighting against homosexual feelings.

In both of these respects, I’d be remiss to not mention the foremost reason I weigh these words and more with great care. Jesus says, “I tell you on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” Whether you believe in a judgment or not, could you admit to not carefully measuring your words and their potential ramifications? Moreover, the apostle Paul writes to the church at Ephesus, “let your speech always be gracious…” I see no grace in throwing such words around in careless fashion. I see instead an insensitive, distanced, self-centered ethic. I used these words in damaging ways in the past, and no doubt I speak other words with little care, but can we agree to consider our words more carefully?

What do you think about this? Ever considered the weight certain words carry for people?