MoMA R&D

Salon 25 Why Words Matter

In December 2017, the news came out that officials at the nation’s top public health agency were being prohibited from using a list of seven words in official documents being prepared for next year’s budget. The forbidden words were “vulnerable,“ "entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” This Orwellian piece of news reveals that words are not only important conveyers of ideas and concepts, but also a powerful mirror of the society that uses them. We use words to navigate expectations, to engage in interpersonal interaction, and to go along with or to speak out against social structures and systems. Therefore, the particular choice of words which we use (and do not use) reflects changes in cultural perspective, social composition, and political circumstances. Moreover, in a 2016 book titled “Words on the Move”, Columbia scholar John Hamilton McWhorter wrote that “changes in meaning are as natural to words as changes of pitch are to music”. In this salon, we will delve into the symphony of words that makes up our dictionary in order to better understand how we, as speakers, use words to inhabit and negotiate our many personal, cultural, and social identities and roles.

Some of the questions we strived to answer: Can words ever be neutral? In which ways do the words that we use to communicate reflect, affect and infect our reality? What about the words that we choose to omit? How does our personal patois – our vocabulary, syntax and linguistic quirks – function as a tool to legitimise, perpetuate and reinforce the status quo? And how can it be used to undermine it? If history is written by the winners, which words could compile a more thorough and comprehensive narration of history? If “to define is to limit”, as Oscar Wilde famously said, can we do without definitions? Where should we draw the line between political correctness and self-censorship? If we are striving for accuracy, how can we balance the ambition to be as precise as possible, without drowning in a sea of qualifications? At which point does an assemblage of words become a language? Is the extinction of languages an inevitable phenomenon? Should we treat certain words as endangered species? Are emojis comparable to words? Do we really know what we are saying when we use them? Are they impoverishing our vocabulary; or are they expanding the potential of our communication outreach?

This salon took place on May, 16th, 2018.

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