The Power of Language

What’s in a word? A phrase? Does it change perception?

I have a friend whose child was born and raised as a girl, but who has since transitioned to being a man. While my friend has repeated to me all the reason she intellectually understands for calling her child her son, she consistently reverts to saying “my daughter.” I have witnessed her pain as she struggles with pronouns that support her son, but feels like a betrayal to herself and her desire for things to be as they had always been.

In both my friend and her son I see the power, importance and deep meaning in word choice.

Language is quite amazing when you stop to think about it. Each individual has the power to choose words that reflect values that speak to who we are as people, and what is important to us individually.

Language can inspire and bring joy, and language can cut deep and offend. In many parts of the world, a government or religion, decree what language is acceptable and what language is not. Wars are fought because of language. Cultures can shift because of people who examine and question language.

I remember as a child the forbidden swear words, which in my family included the now milder, “God,” “damn,” and “hell.” Out of earshot of my parents, I remember the feeling of independence with a resounding “Damn it!” escaping my lips. There was so much happening in that one moment of defiance: the experience that I was not immediately struck dead by a bolt of lightning, and the slow realization that my parents’ language rules, and underlying values, were self-imposed. I could choose my own words, when not in their presence or under their roof. I could choose my own values. And so started a long and ever changing self-exploration about what is it I value and what language do I choose to reflect myself and who I want to be.

Take the next 15 seconds and say these phrases out loud. Say them, swirl them around in your mind, and feel the difference between them:

1. Jeff is homeless.
2. Jeff is experiencing homelessness.


1. The homeless.
2. People experiencing homelessness.

The “1’s” are states of being, with a sense of permanence. The “2’s” are a person and people, who are in this particular moment struggling. The same way they could be struggling with pneumonia, or a flood; it can be awful, and can last a while, but it hopefully passes. Jeff is not pneumonia. Jeff is not a flood person.

Why would we build and identify housing for the “pneumonia people”? Why, as years went by, would anyone want their “pneumonia” or “flood” experience to stay with them? Why would we do that to a person? A family? A child?

Yes, they might have had pneumonia, or survived a flood at one time and it was hard, and the trauma of it may still linger– but they are not that experience first and always. There is not “the homeless”. People who are experiencing homelessness are our brothers, our sisters, our mothers, our fathers, our cousins, our veterans and our neighbors. They are in the middle of a devastating, horrific experience, and one that will pass and will be a story told one day as a difficult experience in a life full of all kinds of stories.

Let us choose our words, think about our values, and try to be conscious about the impact of our language.

Jeff is experiencing homelessness. People are experiencing homelessness.

Then let’s work together to bring people home.

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