Language is a pre-set thing, the rules have already been made for us, and the use of the words within our language already decided. We naturally use certain words to convey our ideas, even if those words don’t truly convey what we mean. This means that we must learn to understand our own language better and to pay attention to what meaning we are giving to our words. This is not a new thing, language has been failing us for decades.
Take charity hospitals for example. The name “charity hospital” was originally a way to deceive the poor as well as Africian Americans to believe that here they could receive adequate care at little to no cost. Yet this was not the case. As pointed out by Harriet Washington in Medical Apartheid, many charity hospitals believed that they had the right to experiment on those who depended on their care. They saw it as fair for helping people, even if that ruins the true meaning of a charity hospital. Charity is the voluntary giving of help and hospital is a place to get medical treatment. Forcing a patient into a dangerous experiment without informed consent is quite the opposite of that. However, even once the truth of these hospitals came to light they were continued to be known as charity hospitals. This allowed the association between all hospitals, all low cost places to be, because the language wasn’t changed to reflect what those places really were.
In Toni Morrison’s Home the reader is introduced to a character named Cee. Cee, a young girl without proper schooling and away from her protective brother goes to work for a doctor and a scientist. On page 65, Cee, in his office looks at the books reading their titles. Titles such as Out of the Night, The Passing of the Great Race, and Heredity, Race, and Society. On the same page, Cee also promises to learn and understand the meaning of the word “eugenics”. Cee’s schooling, or lack thereof has failed her. It has not taught her to identify certain words as dangerous, or that mean to oppress her. For a woman of her time these words, this type of language should be a glaring sign to get out. But because Cee does not understand the language she has no idea to be cautious. What language she does know, fails her because there is no word that means the same thing or holds equal value to convey the same thing.
Fortunately we can do better. Recently in my class, I used the word “trade-off’ to describe the way charity hospitals used those who came for them to help. I had just finished the word itself, when my brain stopped. Trade-off wasn’t the right word, because that would imply that there was a fair trade, and both parties were aware of the exchange. But they weren’t, so using such a word didn’t convey what I really meant. To help fix the errors in our own preset language we must first be aware of what the meanings of each word is, and then use those words correctly. To not fix the failures of language is to muddy the waters of what we really mean, and all that does is leave room for the twisting and misuse of those words, a cycle that one can see is easily exploited at the expense of others. I will leave you with a quote from Harriet Washington, “Language was often tortured to disguise the racial nature of hazardous experimentation.” (pg 59, Medical Apartheid). Fixing the failures in our language allows us to convey the truth, allows us to call out wrongdoings, and protect others. To do this we must constantly be aware of what we are saying and what we are meaning. We must make sure our schooling doesn’t fail short of this, and strive to teach it to others, no matter if it is our peers, our co-workers, or even ourselves. Fixing our language starts with us, and correcting the misuse of language in the past, and not falling into those old habits.