Spitfire Strategies

The Words We Use Matter

Kerry Leslie

By Kerry Leslie


We’ve likely all done it. Spent 15 minutes crafting one sentence. Kicked ourselves for coming up with the perfect retort that would leave our audience speechless after the fact. Or had a full staff discussion about whether to use the word equity or equality in our new vision statement. That’s because the words we use matter.

They can trigger comradery, communicate our alliance with a specific community, signal membership to our tribe and facilitate shared understanding between ourselves and our audience by demonstrating that we’re viewing the world through a similar lens. 

They can also reinforce harmful stereotypes, perpetuate misperceptions and normalize dangerous ideologies. 

That’s some heavy responsibility to put on a word. But whether it’s deciding to adopt the singular “they” and include pronouns in our email signature, talking about “understanding” instead of “believing in” climate change or saying “gun reform” over “gun control,” it’s an exercise we should all undergo, and revisit regularly. This is absolutely the time to argue about semantics.

In every instance, we should ask ourselves:

  • What am I communicating by saying this – both explicitly and implicitly?
  • What am I communicating by not saying something else instead?
  • What values, tensions, social norms or philosophies am I harkening to by choosing this word or phrase?

For example, during the 2015 Democratic primaries, when asked “Do ‘black lives matter’ or do ‘all lives matter’?” by a Drake University law student, all but one of the four candidates who responded, answered with “Black Lives Matter.” Those three words – or in Jim Webb’s case, the wandering response that did not include them – communicated far more than their literal definition.

In the community of immigrant rights advocates, anyone worth their salt knows the words “immigrant” and “illegal” don’t go in the same sentence, let alone right next to each other. While “undocumented immigrant” is a fairly ubiquitous term, some choose “unauthorized migrant” or very intentionally use phrases that describe an individuals’ experience such as “person without the proper documents/authorization” or “living undocumented.” Whichever phrase we use, we are telling people something clear about our values and worldview.

This month’s horrifying events in Charlottesville were a jolting reminder that choosing our words carefully is more important than ever. Many responses to the events have condemned hate and racism. Some linked those evils explicitly to the terms “white supremacists” and “neo-Nazis.” Others used the label “white nationalists.” We should all think carefully about these choices. The Associated Press just took a stance against the term “alt-right” because of its euphemistic qualities. Regardless of the literal definitions, we should probably think twice about the implications of using the term “white nationalism” too – the second half of which connotes patriotism and unity. There’s probably a reason Steve Bannon still feels comfortable denouncing “white nationalism” and calling himself an “economic nationalist” in the same breath.

For many organizations these can be tough conversations and tough decisions, but they matter. And they pay off. There are upwards of a quarter million words in the English language. We owe it to the causes we care about to choose ours wisely.


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