Use Your Words: The Language We Use to Describe Ourselves Matters
It seems like everyone's talking about language these days. Whether we're affirming pronouns, exploring identities, or just having a chat with someone new, it seems increasingly easy to trip over our own tongues. More and more, the words people do and don't like using can seem like a bit of a minefield for the uninitiated, or at least a pretty daunting meadow.
You might feel like there are a lot more sexualities, genders, and new long words around today than there were even a few years ago, or that people are insisting that you know this ever-expanding lexicon better than you know your own name, but fear not! We're going to dive into the depths of LGBTQIA+ linguistics and cast some light onto where all language comes from and why it means so much to so many people.
Language is really important, like, really important. When early hominins (when we took a step up the evolutionary Snakes and Ladders from hominids) realized they could talk to each other, it caused all this cool stuff, like the invention of humanity as a species, and it’s all been upwards since then. While we can't agree on when our evolutionary ancestors invented talking to each other, there was a time before that when telling your best friend you found a really neat round rock or that a thing you liked eating was over that hill was prohibitively difficult.
As we progressed as a species, what may have started just as a convenient warning system became a good way to share information, learn about what came before us, and bond with each other. One prevailing theory is that gossip was a major motivating factor for language, and our ability to privately share information about ourselves and each other allowed us to have stronger relationships with not only the people we know well, but the people they know as well.
In the millennia since, we've changed quite a bit, and just as our social structures aren't static, it follows that as our ideas change so must the language that describes them. This can be seen throughout history when people realised there was a thought in their head that words didn’t exist for, and rather than ignoring that thought, they invented a way to describe it.
Even today, language is invented all the time to describe our world – “telephone” was first used in 1879, and it would be another 95 years until the “internet” was born.
Every object you use, food you eat, and thing you do has a name that stems from the vast etymological history of humanity, and these names all have meanings and significance. But what happens when we move away from physical things, and toward the language we use for describing not only the world, but ourselves?
The ways we describe ourselves and those around us are an important part of sorting ourselves into groups. It's these groups that, at one point, enabled us to settle into villages, cities, and nations, and today allows us to have careers in Search Engine Optimization or to write compelling and attractive online dating profiles. However, due to discrimination, non-dominant groups have always been less likely to be in the room when language is either devised or chosen. Those decisions are often made by colonizers, academics, legislators, and doctors. Not only this, but marginalized people are also left out of any ensuing conversations about change if we don't agree to those very terms previously prescribed by others.
As marginalized folk have had more avenues to seek and share information and experience in recent centuries, this has caused the way we expect our experiences to be talked about to shift. A lot of new words people use to describe themselves have been invented or made more visible, especially in the past few decades, but this is because the internet has allowed these groups to create the very rooms in which we pick those same words. Oftentimes this means discarding language placed upon us by others — sometimes even language in common parlance — and finding new terms that better name and support us.
This can also be found in the ways that marginalized groups use insider language, terms created or repurposed for exclusive in-community use, or to codify their feelings, thoughts, or existence to others. In the past, queers have used phrases like “confirmed bachelor” or “Boston marriage” to hide in plain sight, and the term “friend of Dorothy,” so chosen because of The Wizard of Oz, became so infamous that vice squads went about searching for the infamous Dorothy who knew all these gay men! As a queer woman, the language I use describes my place in my relationships, among my peers, and in the wider world, and it's based both on the terms my community has used and built over time and what fits me personally; we are creating a cohesive lineage of understanding online and off.
When you think of the words we use to describe ourselves, our communities and our cultures, they may feel harmless and inherent, but when someone misuses them, it rubs us the wrong way. Pronouns are a great example of how such a small word can make a world of difference to someone. We are all called by pronouns from birth, usually he or she in relation to an assigned gender. Some people go their entire lives never thinking about them, and others are plagued by their misuse or missing nuance. You may have seen people asking to be called by an entirely different set of pronouns too, such as they/them/theirs, zie/zir/zirs, or others, and these are yet another way that people try and find words to sum up their experiences, and group themselves with the similar experiences of others.
Another example is the word queer. What once was used as a slur against LGBTQIA+ people was reclaimed around the AIDS epidemic as a form of resistance. From here it became part of academic discourse, community work, and pop culture, as Patrick Lenton explores more here. The word queer, as it's used today, finds a space between being an umbrella term and a nondescript reflection of our personal complexity, and it's because of a long and messy history that the word now is able to mean so much to so many. The language our community uses comes from somewhere, and being open and honest about those roots only goes to make us stronger.
That there are just so many words is indicative not only of how important words are, but how important precision is to the way we communicate. If you want to tell someone you are happy, you can open up a thesaurus and find the exact right type of happy you’re feeling, be it “contented” or “exhilarated,” and then by playing with tense and tone you could let them know when and what you’re happy about, and whether you mean the word honestly, sarcastically, or somewhere in the middle. The languages we speak are so powerful that you probably do this every day without even thinking! The term snowflake (invented in 1734) is often thrown around to describe those who are seen as overbearingly specific about the words (14th century) they associate with themselves, but as Teddy Cook wrote in 2013, the language we use: "has a profound effect on those you are trying to affirm. It is not political correctness. It is a decision to move toward a space of respect."
In the end, it simply comes down to that: respect. Language has been created and shaped throughout history (14th century) to reflect the ways we as a species have changed and grown, the 21st century being no exception, and while it may seem like there's thousands of new words to learn, that is just continuing the bodacious (1845) human tradition of language that we still reap benefits from today. Like the sidebar of an early 2000s website (1993), we each surround ourselves with an ever-shifting tag-cloud of identifiers, and it's a sign of how far language has brought us as a species that we use these skills to show kindness. Besides, it's not that difficult once you get the hang of it, you have my word.
Liz is a writer, sexual health nerd and photographer who has had articles, interviews and reviews for a range of publications. She co-hosts wholesome sex ed show @letsdoitpodcast, which carefully signposts which episodes are and aren’t 18+.