Word Power


Did that word offend you?

Did you react negatively?

Are you now so offended that you’ve unsubscribed and will never return to my blog?

Congratulations. You just gave that word — and all those who use it — much more power than they deserve.

People judge you by the words you use. I’ve discussed this before in my Ask Leo! editorial where I talk about writing well, and how I wish I’d paid more attention to it in school.

What’s less considered, however, is that people also judge you by the words you react to.

Call them “trigger” words if you like.

Words and meaning

Words have no power on their own. They’re simply squiggles on paper or vibrations in the air. It’s our use, and more importantly our interpretation of, and reaction to, words that gives them whatever meaning they convey.

Sometimes what they are is powerful.

Sometimes what they are is offensive.

And frequently a combination of both.

But where does that come from? From our reactions. Consider that if we reacted to “the f-word” differently, or not at all, would it have the significance it currently has? Would it have the impact?

Synonyms don’t count?

What I find most fascinating are the alternative words: “fudge”, “fork”, “frell”, and my personal favorite: “frak”. When used they all mean exactly the same thing. Exactly. “Frak” was a manufactured word designed to be exactly synonymous — driven home by its usage on the television show Battlestar Galactica.

They mean the same thing, and yet they are not “offensive”. We don’t react to them the same way. We don’t give them the same power. They’re “acceptable”, for some reason.

So, apparently, it’s not the meaning that’s offensive. I can say “frak” all I want in just about any context.

But say “fuck” just once, even as an example, and some will be deeply and horribly offended.

It is they who give the word its power.

Offense is taken, not given

I tend not to use words considered offensive in my business writing. First, there’s no need, and second, my audience includes many who would indeed allow my innocent use of some trigger word to get in the way of my message.

I know this because even without using those “loaded” words, it’s already happened. It’s rare, but I have received occasional complaints about my use of the acronym OMG, because it supposedly takes the lord’s name in vain(1), saying that something “sucked”, because that apparently has pornographic origins, and even saying that people were “pissed” about something, presumably because that has an excretory connotation. Or something.

I can’t imagine the flood of unsubscribes if I happen to accidentally use something stronger.(2)

Even with the purest of intent, some people will choose to be offended by words I happen to use.

Take back control

The reasons people use nominally offensive words varies. For some it’s just how they speak and no offense is intended. For others it’s a release of frustration. For more, they simply don’t consider the word or phrase offensive to begin with.

And for others still it’s an attempt to grab your attention, or to provoke a reaction.

Don’t. Regardless of the intent don’t let something as simple as a word control you like that.

To me it makes much more sense to react to the idea being expressed, rather than the words someone happens to use to express it. The most horrific ideas humanity has thought of were, I’m sure, expressed in perfectly polite language.

Use words to your advantage — clearly you can use them to make people think, feel, and even react — but don’t let someone else’s choice of words control you. Listen to what they have to say, sure, but don’t let their choice of inflammatory or even offensive words blind you to their real message.


(1) To which I of course respond: “Oh My Gosh!”

(2) Unlikely, since that’s not how I generally write, and it’s something I’m confident my editor would catch.

16 thoughts on “Word Power”

  1. It’s about fracking time someone wrote about how it really is 🙂

    A response of “You offended me” is self-deception, perhaps designed to shirk responsibility for feeling offended.

    If people understood they are being puppets, perhaps intentionally used by the “offender”, when they react to their own internal triggers, perhaps they would find sufficient incentive to clean house.


    P.S. I laughed when I read your response to OMG complaints 🙂

  2. I have a shirt that reads, “I’m a lady with the vocabulary of a well educated sailor.” If questioned, my standard reply is, “Don’t make me use it.” Generally, it works.

  3. Any attempt to diminish language is flawed…free your mind and the rest will follow…give up your desire to control…live more…life is at the edges, in the gaps
    Meaning is in the space between. Laugh out loud.

  4. I really like this article. You’ve explained the reasoning so well. I’ve been telling people for years that all those words labeled profanity are just made-up words, so why all the fuss and bother? I’m more offended bad grammar and pronunciation and by the overuse of words such as “awesome” and “like”. Sigh. I need to follow Gary’s advice.

  5. “I have received occasional complaints about my use of the acronym OMG, because it supposedly takes the lords name in vain”
    I’m triggered it should be lord’s

  6. Word power seems like nothing more than another way our egos feed themselves – aka self absorption.

  7. I have learned that vulgar language is the attempt of a feeble mind to express itself in a forceful way.

    • Many of the smartest, and most eloquent people I know are also quite adept at their use of profanity. So profanity — the words you react to — is not, to me, a sign in and of itself of a feeble mind in any way.

  8. So, would you use the word that is so bad that it’s only referred to as “the [initial]-word”? After, if anyone is offended, that really is only on them, right?

    Some people use words on purpose to offend, and then justify the usage by blaming others. “That’s just the way I talk,” or “You’re just too sensitive.” That’s the self-deception, that it’s all right for you to offend, and those who are offended are in the wrong. Your triggers are valid; others’ are nonsense. After all, you’re more important than anyone else. Most of the posters here seem to have that view.

    From an earlier blog post: “Anger should not be normal. Do your part to prevent it from becoming so.”

    If you know it’s going to offend, why do it on purpose? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Third-graders use the new words they learn to shock others. Unfortunately, some adults still act the same way.

    • We don’t disagree, but that’s not what this article is about. I’m not advocating for more use of profanity, and certainly not advocating using it to purposely offend. In fact, I’m not talking to the people who swear at all.

      I’m talking to the people who hear profanity and become offended. They are the ones giving those words, and those who use those words, undue power.

          • How do you match “Make the world a less angry place” with “If they’re offended, that’s their choice. Not my concern.”? If it’s all on them, your admonition to make the world a less angry place seems hollow.

          • Nowhere did I say it’s not my concern. It’s very much the concern of this very article. Being aware of how you’re triggered by profanity, realizing it’s a choice, and then choosing to respond differently, is in fact one way that everyone has in their power to make the world a less angry place.

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