Why do Words Matter? A Brief Answer.

Words, phrases, and language in general are just like everything else in the world. We give them meaning and then use that meaning in everyday life to accomplish (insert thing here). Society decides what words have certain “strength” and what words don’t. We decide what is taboo and what is not. Through this “system” we give words incredible amounts of power over people. Racial slurs, dirty words, or even just generally cold-hearted comments can cast a shadow over entire groups. It is just a word or just a phrase but because of the connotations that we assign to it, it makes words have more power than a sword or a bomb.

A perfect example of what I just said lies in this weeks readings. Whether it is Anthony Comstock really hating on anything “obscene” (Comstock Condemns, 243) or Angela Heywood and her “infamous three words,” (Battan, 259) it was clear that in the 19th century words had an incredible effect on what people considered good or bad. For example, Shannon noted last week in her piece how powerful the word “gay” could be on society. Homosocial and homosexual relationships were considered quite foreign during this time, and a lot of that is because there simply wasn’t a proper term to describe them.

Thanks to Comstock, the Freedom of Speech of average Americans was censored regularly through the mail service. Why did he fight such a battle to demand censors? Well he believed that the words and subjects offered up by advertising and pornography were harming the nations youth. They were so harmful that the legislative branch of the U.S. government (under heavy scrutiny at the time) decided the moral thing to do was to limit people with the threat of financial penalty or jail time. (Comstock Condemns, 243-244)

Words were so powerful and effective that the government had to limit their use in certain outlets. As it turns out at the time they were so powerful they cost people their lives. The post Civil-War south was still an incredibly racist and unfair society towards african americans. As Ida B. Wells-Barnett pointed out, the word rape was misused constantly in this society. Black men were slapped with the label of rapist from the word go. This was done to bring down the black man and make them look like the bad guy. As long as the word rape was tied to a black man, it was essentially a death sentence. But this word wasn’t the only one deadly to african americans. One story Wells-Barnett mentioned was simply in regards to the tone of the words spoken to white people, “Will Lewis who was hanged at Tullahoma, Tenn., last year for being drunk and ‘sassy’ to white folks.” The words attached to African Americans or spoken by them either challenged or reaffirmed the social hierarchy of the south, and in many cases led to the untimely deaths of many African Americans. (Myth of the Black Rapist, 155-158)

The best observation made in our readings was that by Jesse Battan. He noticed that both of the major groups with regards to sexuality, the “Free Lovers” and the “Prudists,” both attacked the issue from that of language. The Free Lovers wanted to open up the language society considered normal at the time, and then it would allow people to understand sexuality in a more equal and respectable light. The prudists instead wanted to censor language even more so then what was normal in the Victorian era. Words were the weapons of these two groups. By limiting them, the prudists exerted power over the population and set the precedent. But by trying to open up what people can say, the Free Lovers tried to change society as a whole and eliminate the deemed oddities of the Victorian era.

Words cost people money, years of their life in jail, or more simply their lives. Words have the power to change society or rip it to shreds. The power of words is determined by society, but the decision of what power words receive is a great debate. It was as common in the 19th century as it is now. This will likely continue as society evolves and changes, and as time continues words will assuredly shape how we think of ourselves.

“Ida B. Wells-Barnett Exposes the Myth of the Black Rapist, 1892.” In Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, edited by Kathy Peiss, 155-158. New York Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

“Anthony Comstock Condemns Obscene Literature, 1883.” In Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, edited by Kathy Peiss, 243-244. New York Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Battan, Jesse. “‘The Word Made Flesh’: Language, Authority, and Sexual Desire in Late Nineteenth-Century America.” In Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, edited by Kathy Peiss, 252-264. New York Houghton Mifflin, 2002.


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