Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Whores and Prostitutes : the baggage that words carry

One of my colleagues was orienting some newly inducted staff about our work among the prostitutes of Mumbai, when an indignant hand shot up to protest. “prostitute” was not a word to be used – especially by our kind of people who were involved in the development sector who ought to know better. After a sheepish apology, the session continued and eventually we proceeded to enumerate the number of "beneficiaries" whom we had rescued from the "flesh trade".

Soon other hands had shot up. The word “ beneficiary” was too patronizing – who did we think we were any way.... and “flesh trade” .... well wasn't the word so coarse and harsh and how could we even think of using such a word, didn't we have any sensitivity at all or what ? I began to have deep sympathies for our communications manager , who presumably has to learn to walk around with a lot of dictionaries and thesauruses to avoid tripping over a charge about the wrong use of words. I was thrilled that I didn't have her role.

Later that day, I was leaving to board a flight. The weather was wet and it had been raining heavily causing traffic jams all the way from my home to the airport. The humidity and the rain had ensured that all all my clothes were soaked to the bone. As the taxi entered the crowded and disorderly airport terminal, i spotted a relatively empty gate meant for “ persons with special needs”. I immediately cataloged all my special needs – I was occasionally breathless, more often than not short tempered and hot headed,m terribly impatient too. Some minor medical ailments were accompaniments too. But the CISF jawan at the gate wouldn't let me in.stripping aside jargon, he told me that the gate was meant for “apang log”, the disabled”. Special needs was an euphemism for disability.

Since then i have been wondering a lot about the words we use. A lot of them have become so much a part of common usage that we use them without thinking and without intending any harm. Yet words carry a lot of weight, can be stigmatizing and devastating for the self esteem. But we seldom know, because we live and breathe in a different world. As a child , I was taught , never , ever to use the word” leper” because it had a certain connotation of exclusion, isolation and neglect. On street corners and traffic signals , I have seen plenty of people who would qualify for the use of the word in its classical sense, but so ingrained is the lesson, that perhaps this is one word that I am most unlikely to use.

Some of course can of course can so completely swing the other way, that they are more concerned about the correctness of their jargon than sensitivity to the person. Indeed it is possible that the people most busy in serving those in need have the least time to update their vocabulary , while those who are right in their nuances of speech are the most indifferent when it comes to doing things that really matter.

So which way does one turn ? While it is perhaps correct to say that one should not be unduly obsessed with words and phrases and that the motive of the heart is far more important than the utterances of the tongue, we should never forget though that words carry a lot of weight and a stray word spoken out of turn and without the slightest ill will intended, can cause paralyzing harm and trauma which we may neither see nor recognize. So let us weigh our words wisely and choose our phrases carefully , in as much as we are able. There is enough hurt in the world, without we needing to add unwittingly, an extra ton.

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