By Tim Leeds
William Shakespeare once wrote "What's in a name? A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet."
I tend to agree with Shakespeare's take on names. I don't really care if people call me "Tim," "Timmy," "Timothy," "Leeds," "Mr. Leeds," "schmuck," "dufus," or something less attractive. I know who I am, and what people call me doesn't make me any different.
The same goes for what I am. As far as I'm concerned, I'm an American. I do come from English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, French, German, Native American, and I'm not completely sure what other heritage. It really doesn't matter to me what other people consider my heritage, because I'm comfortable enough with what I am, as much of a putz or schmuck I may be.
But language is kind of a funny thing. What you call something can sort of define what it is, or at least what you mean or think about it. Along with the denotative meaning of the word, there is also a connotative meaning, what it implies or makes you think when you hear it.
If a rose was decreed to be a "nasty stinky skunk flower" tomorrow, and no one could call it a rose any longer, it could change what people think when they talk about it. If a rose could think, it probably wouldn't like the new name much.
If descendants of Africans in this country want to be called "African Americans" instead of "blacks" or "colored people" or less complimentary terms, I think it's worth the effort to call them what they wish. It really doesn't take much effort, after all.
If descendants of the first people in this country would prefer to be called "Native Americans" instead of "Indians," I don't see any problem in accommodating that wish. It does make more sense, since they aren't connected to India anywhere but in the mistakes of the first European explorers in this hemisphere.
I do have a problem with "political correctness." When you try to make all terms used inoffensive to everyone, you run the risk of losing meaning in what you say. I remember a few years ago reading about how the word "illiterate" had, in at least one group's eyes, become offensive. I don't remember what their replacement was, but it amazed me.
"Illiterate" simply means "Hav-ing little or no formal education, especially unable to read and write." (The American Heritage Dictionary, ©1983.) How, exactly, can you replace a word meaning having little training or ability to read and write that won't imply someone doesn't have much training in reading and writing? If you can succeed, you have come up with a word that doesn't mean what it means, if you get my drift. You end up with a word that means nothing.
But that aside, care should be used in choosing words and names. You can say "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." That's an admirable attitude to have, but while words may not leave cuts and bruises, they can hurt. Hurt pretty badly, too.
Words can hurt on the inside, on the soul. Even if they don't cause lasting psychological damage, they can easily cause temporary anger, frustration, fear, depression and more. And they can cause lasting damage, too.
Some of the greatest damage could come to the self-image. If you tell people enough that they are worthless, lazy, stupid, less of a person than others, sooner or later they just might start believing it.
Words can be very powerful. Perhaps no one should let what other people call them or say about them bother them much. I feel that the use of insulting words tends to show more shortcomings of the speaker than of the one he's talking about. But maybe everyone should remember to respect other's wishes about what to call them.
I'm sure most everyone out there has some of their own desires about that, and extending that to everyone else would be pretty nice.