Words matter: Change a phrase, change the meaning

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman, The Reporter, Vestal, NY

Was Shakespeare wrong when he wrote “that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet”? The answer in contemporary times would be yes: Words and names do matter. The terms we use to describe someone can change the way we feel about them.

When my little brother was growing up, he was called “mentally retarded.” Those words were once so acceptable they were part of the official name of the organization that ran the center in which he lived: the New York State Office of Mental Retardation, which is now known as the Office for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities. The second part of the name change is also important: No longer do we speak about developmentally disabled individuals, but rather individuals with a development disability.

The difference? The former defines people by their disability; the latter acknowledges that a disability is only one part of a complex personality.

The same is true for other disabilities. For example, I now try to refer to myself as a person with a hearing impairment, rather than a hearing impaired individual. On the one hand, this feels like semantics because it doesn’t change my condition or the difficulties I face. On the other hand, it reminds me that my disability – no matter its effect on my daily world – is not the sum total of my life.

I recently learned to change another term. A friend posted an article on Facebook asking that we stop saying someone committed suicide, but rather use the phrase “they died by suicide.” I was struck by how that simple word change made me think differently about what occurred. Usually someone who takes his or her own life has suffered great mental, physical or psychic pain. This new use of words reminds us of that.

This new phrase is also very similar to rabbinic thoughts about suicide. Ancient rabbinical authorities said those who die by their own hand cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. However, this is only if there were no ameliorating circumstances or conditions, such as mental illness or depression. What this means in practical terms is that few who die by suicide are refused burial.

The person who posted the article on Facebook is active in the Out of the Darkness Community Walk, which raises money for suicide prevention. She knows what it’s like to lose a loved one: her mother – a lovely, wonderful woman – died by suicide.

Does it really matter which words we use? Maybe not if we only used a phrase once. But repetition – our brains hearing something over and over again – does affect how we think about people and events. The extra effort it takes to change our speech is worthwhile, if only for the care and comfort it gives to others.

This article was provided via JTA co-op.

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