How much does word choice matter?
I’d say quite a bit. But, that’s just my opinion.
Recently, I read an article that troubled me. The author – though clearly intelligent and eloquent – used the word “deserve” when talking about body types and body positivity.
Her message was:
You have the body you deserve.
Now, I’m of the opinion that the cancer patient, the chronically ill, those with disabilities didn’t do anything to incite some karmic wrath against their bodies. But that’s the impression I got from this message.
The word came up over and over. And the thing was, it seemed out of place in an article that was supposed to be about body positivity and not needing fancy clothes to go to the gym. Weird, right?
But everything I agreed with was quickly replaced with the idea that if your body looks or behaves a certain way, then you’re not working hard enough. It’s your own fault.
When I pointed this out in my response – note: I specifically used the word “ableist” – I received a lengthy and borderline pretentious response in defense of her work.
The message was that I clearly missed what she was saying (I didn’t) and if I bothered to read the entire article (I did), I would’ve understood what she meant. She used the word “deserve” on purpose to get some point across that I clearly wasn’t smart enough to get. My pointing out her problematic wording was thrown back at me as some sort of telling trait about me. She also threw in a mention of how prolific she was with her writing, which I thought was weird.
This whole encounter inspired me to really think about word choice.
Even if she didn’t mean what I thought she meant. Even if I completely misinterpreted the use of that specific word. Her choice of words caused a fundamental misunderstanding, which could’ve been avoided with the use of another.
In this instance, the word choice was purposeful. For whatever reason. But in these decisive moments, writers need to be careful with their words. They need to pick the most correct one in order to get their message across in the most comprehensible way.
As writers, the words we choose have an impact on people — for better or for worse.
We have the responsibility to be mindful of what we choose to write so our ideas and point aren’t muddled. Connotations matter just as much as literal definitions and certain words come with heavy implications, whether we mean them or not.
Unless we fully explain the reasoning behind some of our word choices, we leave the interpretation of our writing completely up to the reader. They cannot read our thoughts, nor fully understand our motivations when writing, so if a misunderstanding occurs, then we have failed to fully articulate our ideas in the way we meant.
Obviously, it’s unrealistic to write out an explanation about every single word choice. But in moments when you’re including an important idea or message or philosophy, that’s when word choice and a full explanation comes into play.
Either pick the right words, explain your word choice, or be prepared to defend them.
And it’s okay to get it wrong. No one is perfect and I’ve had moments where I used the wrong words or said the wrong thing. But, instead of getting defensive and rude, use it as a moment to learn how to better use language to your purpose. Explain your choice and move on. Do better next time.
If the author I mentioned earlier took the time to quickly explain what she meant by “deserve” in the context of her article, while I may not have agreed with it, at least I’d have a full understanding of why she included it. It was clearly an important message for her, as it came up multiple times in the article, but I still don’t fully understand her reasoning.
For me, this use of a heavily moralistic word in the context of body positivity detracted from the message of the article.
Writers work with words. It’s our job. Unless we’re doing our very best to pick and choose our words in a mindful and meaningful way, we run the risk of having our ideas lost within moments of misunderstanding.