Susannah Colt: The weight of the words we choose

For the Monitor
Published: 2/27/2021 6:30:07 AM

An old adage came to mind while reading the paper this morning: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me.” I used to yell it at the kids on the playground when they called me “CT.” I finally weaseled out of them what “CT” meant: “carrot top.” Yes, I was a redhead. The kids thought they were being clever, but the fact that I couldn’t figure out what they were calling me hurt my feelings.

My mother taught me the adage because I tended on the oversensitive side and needed a clever comeback. I yelled it at the neighbor boys all the time because they were relentless in their teasing of me. Honestly, I never really felt any better as I ran home crying to my mother yelling the adage over my shoulder in the boys direction.

As I’ve grown older, though, I do find words matter; the proper usage of words matters. When you go to the doctor, you want them to use simple English to describe your ailments, not the fancy Latin names they were taught in medical school. When you hire an attorney, you want them to explain to you in simple terms what your case is about. I was taught in law school to “keep it simple, stupid.”

So when I read the Our Turn by Al Baldasaro, Bob Giuda, and Joe Kenney on Feb. 24 calling for Sen. Lou D’Allesandro to apologize to Gov. Chris Sununu, the staff at the New Hampshire Veterans Home, and the families of deceased veterans, I stumbled on their use of the word “abject” in front of the word “apology.”

What does it mean to “owe” an “abject apology”? I had to look up the word “abject” in the dictionary. The first definition is “a state of being extremely unhappy, poor, and unsuccessful.” Examples of the use of the word are “they live in abject poverty” or “the policy has turned out to be an abject failure.”

As the word “abject” relates to a person, it means “completely without pride or dignity; self-abasing.” The example in that case was “abject apology”; in other words, a “groveling” apology or “crawling on your knees” to apologize.

Who makes people crawl on their knees to apologize these days? Perhaps fascists, despots, or dictators?

In a civilized society one asks for a sincere apology, not a self-abasing apology.

Division is rampant in America now and one of the reasons may be our use of words.

Certainly, the tragedy that befell the residents at the veterans home because of COVID-19 is horrific. I suspect many of the families of those fallen veterans have questions as to why their family members died.

But sweeping the tragedy under the carpet as an “inevitable setback,” as the authors of the “Our Turn” suggest, would be a failure of duty of our government. Calling D’Allesandro’s request for an investigation an effort to “exploit for partisan political points” is like the “pot calling the kettle black.”

I’m not going to ask the authors of the “Our Turn” to apologize, abjectly or sincerely, because they are entitled to their opinion under the First Amendment, just as D’Allesandro is entitled to his opinion.

What I would ask is that they choose their words more carefully, because words do have consequences.

Alexander Hamilton, back in the days of the American Revolution and the drafting of the Constitution, was a prolific writer. He wrote the majority of The Federalist Papers. He also wrote scores and scores of opinion pieces, which were called “pamphlets” back in those days. He was not always judicious in his words, which frequently came back to haunt him. Ultimately his words would result in his death by dueling with Aaron Burr.

A month before the fatal duel, Hamilton wrote a “thesis on discretion” for his young son, explaining the etiquette of public discourse, hoping he’d learn from his mistakes: “A prudent silence will frequently be taken for wisdom and a sentence or two cautiously thrown in will sometimes gain the palm of knowledge – while a man well informed but indiscreet and unreserved will not uncommonly talk himself out of all consideration and weight.”

I would like to think that we can heal the great divide by being more discreet and reserved in our discourse.

(Susannah Colt lives in Whitefield. She can be reached at susannahbcolt@gmail.com.)




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