Sticks & Stones semantics

There have been a few words I have tried to eradicate from my child’s vocabulary.

Fat is one of them.

Retarded is another.

These are words that have bothered me for various reasons for a long time.

Fat is a word that taunted me as a child and is a word I have called myself, even in the times I was frighteningly skinny.

Retarded is a word that just shouldn’t be said.

There are other words that are just hurtful as well, and they all vary in their sting depending on their intent.

Does that mean bad words don’t sometimes fall out of my mouth for various reasons?
I’m not about to lie and say they don’t.

In moments of anger I have heatedly used hurtful epitaphs, not to anyone’s face mind you, but I have uttered them in furious outbursts, usually in the confines of my car or locked in the bathroom.

Not some of my finest moments.

Other words have floated around lately, words that I thought had been stricken from the vernacular, that created conversations as to the power, weight, and importance of words.

More importantly, the conversation focused on how some words can be used to hurt and are never okay, regardless of the relationship between the people using them.

And as I try to be vigilant about the words that are uttered and said about people, two words that I didn’t even think about have found themselves on my radar.

Dumb and stupid.

Being a parent makes one hyper-aware of the words that are said.

You expect the occasional swear word to slip out as a means of pushing the boundaries.

You wait for a teacher to send you a note saying your child repeated words that are unacceptable and she wonders where he heard them.

Dumb and stupid seem to be innocent words, uttered about things that are common and everyday.

“That’s so stupid,” I have muttered under my breath when I hear something I don’t agree with.

“How dumb,” has been whispered about instructions on the back of the pizza box.

It wasn’t until I heard the words come out of my child’s mouth that I realized how these words that seemed so benign to a degree could hurt.

He wasn’t even saying the words in a mean manner. But hearing him say them made me realize how hurtful they could be.

“Who was dumb?” I asked for clarification.

“Not who, Mama. What. And it was the rules. The rules are so dumb and stupid.”

I can understand feeling that way as a teenager. Rules do feel that way at times, even when we are adults, and we appreciate them.

“So, it wasn’t a person?”

He shook his head no.

“Why would that matter?” he asked sincerely.

It would matter for many reasons, I thought.

But I could see what was confusing. We say things – and people – are dumb and stupid all the time.

We do it to be funny, to be mean, to be hateful, and even when we are just irritated by them.

Mama has always taken offense when I have commented something she said was dumb or stupid.

“I am not stupid,” she said.
“I didn’t say you were,” I reply.

“You said my reaction was stupid; that’s the same thing.”
“No, it’s not.”

“Yes, it is.”
In my mind, it wasn’t but most of our communication is the other person’s perception of what we said. If we are belittling them or at least make them feel like we are making fun of them, odds are they won’t listen to us.

“I don’t like those words,” I told my child after thinking about some of the heavier implications.  

He was confused; they have been words he’s heard me say.


“Because calling someone dumb or stupid is not nice,” I said. “Someone can’t help that.”

“They can’t?” he asked.

“No, they can’t. Dumb traditionally speaks more to their intellect, or capacity to learn.  Not everyone learns at the same speed or level. So, I really don’t like that word at all.”

He understood that part.

“What about stupid?” he asked. “Is it the same?”

I took a deep breathe. In my mind, stupid was different. Stupid could mean someone was choosing to be ignorant despite the information that had been presented to them.

Stupid, I explained, had some application in certain circumstances as long as it was used to address an action or behavior and not a person.

He nodded.
“So, it is better to call someone’s actions stupid but not the person. And never dumb.”

“Right,” I said. “But it would just be better if we didn’t use it at all. We need to think about how we would feel if someone said that to us.”

Perhaps, if we did that, none of our words would have a hurtful sting.

The words that matter


That’s the word someone used to describe me lately.

Not because I live in Georgia or because I have a drawl that people outside of our region probably have a difficult time understanding.

But I was called country because I have a love and compassion for animals, even the undomesticated kind.

I laughed it off and even though I am pretty sure the person meant it as an insult, didn’t take it that way.

My child on the other hand was not very happy when he heard the news and expressed his opinion in a way that proved he is indeed a descendant of my family tree.

Mama didn’t like the term either, but she may have been triggered by the memory of me being previously called derogatory terms by the ex-husband.

“I don’t like that you were called that,” Cole said.

I shrugged. “It was nothing.”

I had only mentioned it in conversation because it was part of the story I was relaying.

“But what did they mean by calling you that? It just seems like they were meaning something a lot worse.”

I imagine they were using the term as a softer alternative to redneck or hillbilly, the two phrases my ex-husband used to describe my family because, except for Mama, they all had blue-collar or labor jobs.

Some of my family members worked construction, or were truck drivers, and farmers. To the ex, hard-working people were rednecks.

Being called ‘country’ was meant to insult me, but it didn’t. Like Granny, I have no fancy pretenses about myself and could care less about trying to act like I am something I am not.

I am not that comfortable in a big city. Traffic gives me anxiety attacks and I don’t like being in an environment full of strangers.

So, maybe being called country is an apt description.

“I still don’t like it; it was meant to hurt your feelings,” Cole said.
I appreciated his concern and told him so, but I had to let him know there was an important lesson here.

“It didn’t hurt my feelings and I wasn’t insulted,” I began. “See, for it to hurt me, I would have to care about the opinion of the person who said it. And I didn’t. Words can only hurt us when we believe them.”

“You always tell me words matter,” Cole reminded me.

True. They do.

And in this case, the word was being used in an attempt to make someone feel bad or inferior.

We have gotten to where we use words like “country” to label people, to point out a difference and maybe separate us in the process.

Our words and language are supposed to bring us together and build us up, not try to tear us down and apart.

But it sure doesn’t feel that way lately.

It seemed like everyone was trying to get a little dig in, any way they could. We have focused on the things that keep us divided and make us scatter instead of what can unite us.

People have forgotten that no matter where we are from, and no matter the differences, we still belong to one another.

“So, you don’t care at all that person thinks you are country?”

I really don’t.

“But why doesn’t it bother you?” my child asked.

“What someone thinks about me is none of my business,” I said. “That’s their opinion of me and their opinion is not fact or my character.”

“But what if their opinion of you is wrong?”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.

That person didn’t really know me, only what they thought they knew.

“Did what they say about you make you think differently about them?” Cole asked.

“No,” I said. “I already had my opinion about them. Their comment just reinforced it.”

“What did you think of them?” he asked.

It didn’t matter. Just like they were way off base with me, my opinion was just that and I may be wrong.

“I can think of a few names I would like to call that person,” Cole admitted.
I could understand that and told him so but reminded him that just served to drag us down to their level.

Even though it may feel good, it still only served to put a bigger wedge between us.

“There’s enough name calling already,” I said. “Instead of thinking of how to hurt someone, we need to just say things that can help us find a common ground, and not declare a word war.”

So, I was called country. It was not a total lie. It wasn’t a total truth, either.

The word didn’t matter; neither did the opinion by the person who said it.

What was important, was that I was reminded of how our words can either unite us or divide, and it matters how we decide to use them.

A cautionary tale

The other day, I was reminded of the importance of one little word.

A word with only three letters but a big impact.

The word is ‘but.’

It wasn’t a word I have thought much about in a while but when it was brought to my attention, I realized it is a word I needed to pay attention to.

This one little word may have been the redheaded duo’s favorite word.

“Your biscuits were good,” Granny began, “But, they were too big.”

“How can a biscuit being too big be a bad thing?” I demanded to know.

She looked at me with disgust. How dare I defy anything she declared as fact?
“Because they are. Your sausage patty is only so big. What are you going to do with the leftover biscuit?”

“I make my biscuits for butter and honey,” I said.

She snorted. “Of course you do. But, normal folks like sausage and none of that vegetarian nonsense.”

I wanted to tell her I wasn’t even a vegetarian anymore, but it wouldn’t have mattered.

“You did good on that test, but,” –

“I like your new haircut, but,” –

“Your house looks nice, but,” –

I have learned to not only dread but wait for the but.

The but that comes to let me know that whatever compliment had been previously given was about to be taken away.

Granny was famous for it.

Mama, as kind hearted as she is, is much more subtle with her but.

And even though I am 45, I want Mama’s approval.

Some things, she is easy to please.

Others, she can hold me to task more than Granny and would probably impress the old gal.

Where Granny was critical about cooking, Mama reserves her negating for things I do to my hair.

“Your hair is cute,” she began one day. “But why did you want to color it red.”

“I was paying homage to the crazy redheads in my family,” I replied.
“Hmmm,” she demurred. “But, difference is, we are natural redheads, Kitten. You are a natural brunette. Stick with what God gave you.”

“If that was the case, I would be bald, Mama. And so would you.”

She also doesn’t understand some of my other life choices.

“It’s wonderful you went back to school, but,” – here it comes – “I don’t know why you didn’t go to law school. Probably because I wanted you to.”

I sighed. It was hard to endure the buts. I was given a compliment only to be followed by something that completely wiped out the previous praise.

I cringe when I hear that word, so I cringe a lot; it’s said by everyone.

Including myself.

I didn’t notice how much I said it until I realized how much I hated it – kind of ironic, isn’t it?

I would thank my husband for doing something and throw a ‘but’ in there.
Mama would ask me if I liked whatever she got me, and I had something to undercut it.

‘But’ was everywhere.

I wondered how different our perspective would be if instead of trying to find flaw with something, we just focused on the positives of a situation.

I know when I hear the but, I immediately anticipate some criticism coming. And after the but is uttered, I don’t focus on the things I did right or the praises; instead, I focus on the one thing that I did wrong.

The but is a great big minus sign, taking away any good we may have done and tend to put us on the defensive.

I decided I needed to try to limit my buts unless they were absolutely necessary.

Cole decided to help clean one day.

I hadn’t asked him, he just did it because he knew I had so much to do.

So, he washed the dishes and folded laundry.

“Mama, I wanted to help. Did I do it OK?” he asked when he finished.

The laundry was not folded the way I like. I have always had a thing about how my towels are folded.

I prefer the dishes to be stacked a certain way to air dry.

“Yeah, but,” – I caught myself.

“But what?” he asked. The minute he heard the but, his expression fell a little.
“I don’t have any cash to give you for helping,” I said.

He hugged me. “I didn’t want anything, Mama, I just wanted to help.”

“You did great,” I said.

And I left the but out of it.