“I will simply take the position that the spoken word, like the written word, amounts to a nonsensical arrangement of sounds or letters without a consensus that assigns “meaning.” And building from the meanings of what we hear, we order reality. Words themselves are innocuous; it is the consensus that gives them true power.”
-Gloria Naylor, in “The Meanings of a Word”
I first learned the power of a single word when I was in kindergarten. There was a boy, we’ll call him B., whom I found funny and kindhearted, the kind of boy many other boys and girls liked to pick on. We often would end up near each other in our seating arrangements, and once he told me I looked cute with my ponytail. I returned the compliment by saying he looked cute in his glasses. It wasn’t young love, just kindness.
In my elementary school years, at least up until 2nd grade, I was a champion for the lesser known, the bullied, the proletariat in grade school in a small town in Nebraska. Before I allow myself to soak in the warm blush of the music from my own horn, I should preface the rest of my story with the fact that I was also one of the largest children in my class. My twin sister and I were always tall for our age, and though we averaged out in the end, for most of elementary and middle school, we helped raise the standard height for our grade. It was nice to be big. It was helpful in many situations, including the following.
Above-average-height-kindergarten-Rachel, wearing plaid stirrup stretch pants and probably a purple turtleneck, was just meandering about one recess, when cute-glasses B. was spotted across the playground, struggling to get his baseball cap from another student. A much taller second grader had B.’s hat and was gesturing that she was going to throw it over a fence where the school vehicles were kept. I’d seen B. hanging around her before, so apparently they knew each other; however, I didn’t like to see people get their things taken away. Many show-and-tell items (often the items students treasured more than most) became the lofted target for drawn-out games of Monkey-in-the-Middle. One of my favorite pastimes at recess was to end those games by snatching the toy out of the air and handing it back to the rightful owner (It angered many of my classmates, and sometimes even the “monkey” seemed a bit disappointed. Maybe the attention was better than the toy they’d lost. It’s best to believe that NO ONE took my things, but I also didn’t bring my most prized possessions.). Being a fairly quiet and reserved child, I wasn’t often seen as a threat. Stealthily I climbed the cement steps near the bus area, and when the girl sat the hat near the top of the fence, I jumped up and grabbed it for B.
Suddenly I heard a bloodcurdling cry emitting from the girl’s mouth. At the time it sounded like “You WITCH!” but even then I knew that wasn’t the word she had said. I think I dropped the hat or let her rip it out of my hands, for the shock from the word, from the expression of it, had shaken any ounce of heroism I had in me. I also know I began crying. Running from the fence, I ran into a girl from my class (coincidentally the shortest girl in our class) who saw me crying and took me to the teacher on duty. Poor Mrs. L., who would be my first grade and favorite teacher, asked me what was wrong.
“That girl called me a name!” I said through big hiccupping sobs. Any onlooker would have thought the girl had killed my dog or stabbed me through the throat the way I wept.
“What was it?” Mrs. L. asked.
I remember panic setting in. I didn’t know. I knew it sounded like “witch,” but I’d never heard the word before. For all I knew, the word could have been very complimentary, and maybe the girl had dubbed me queen of the playground. But the way she had said it, how it left her mouth and the sting it left when my ears tasted I – that was how I knew it was mean. She had said it to hurt my feelings, and she had.
“I don’t want to say it,” I said, the sobbing subdued to sniffles.
“Whisper it in my ear,” she said.
She leaned down and there I was, inches from her adult haircut and pierced ear. I know I said something, either “witch” or “it sounded like ‘witch.’” But at that point I didn’t care. I hadn’t been trying to get the girl in trouble; I hadn’t even known what she’d done to make me upset. But the damage was done. I’d been hit with a word, and I knew its impact before I knew what it meant.
Mrs. L. interrogated the student, and she lied about what had happened and what she’d said. Again, I didn’t really care. B. had his hat back, so I’d been victorious after all.
We all have moments like this in language, whether we remember them or not. I’d grown up dictating stories to my mother, making her write down the words to the pictures I’d drawn, and the “books” at the end were some of my prized possessions (note: these were never taken to show-and-tell). But until that day, when a bully was able to strike fear in me with a single utterance, one word that didn’t even register in my vocabulary, I never realized how powerful words, or a single word, could be. Gloria Naylor writes about this in her essay “The Meanings of a Word” which originally appeared in the New York Times in 1986. She writes about the first time she heard the word nigger and how it was because of its use by a classmate that it registered so clearly, so resolutely as a negative term. She goes on to examine the word and its uses. But before she writes about the word itself, she introduces the idea of language:
Language is the subject. It is the written form with which I’ve managed to keep the wolf away from the door and, in diaries, to keep my sanity. In spite of this, I consider the written word inferior to the spoken, and much of the frustration experienced by novelists is the awareness that whatever we manage to capture in even the most transcendent passages falls far short of the richness of life.
Words, however powerful their individual meanings, gain significance because of how we use them. This idea made me want to write in the first place, to put pen to paper and try to combine words so they could have an impact on the people that read them, however few and far between those people are. As for being a “witch” or a “bitch” or a mixture of the two, I suppose I don’t care very much at this point in my life. After all, depending on how you use them, there are good versions of both.