ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As a kid and self-avowed nerd, the book I often took to bed each night was the dictionary.
I did this at the suggestion of my dad and as strange as it may sound, the dictionary became something of a captivating bedtime story.
I marveled at the alchemy of how words came to be, conjured from roots culled from foreign lands and tweaked over time. The word “clue,” for example, began as the “clew” of Greek mythology, a ball of string Theseus unfurled behind him to find his way out of the minotaur’s labyrinth.
Today, words are my livelihood. They are the tools to communicate. They are both weapon and balm, mightier than the sword, softer than a shoulder to cry on.
As reporters, we are taught to avoid loaded words that elicit unintended emotions or betray an opinion – as a columnist, I elicit at will, however.
We use “said” instead of “admit,” for example.
You “leave” a bank, but if you “flee” one you may have just admitted a misdeed.
You “use” a wheelchair but are not “confined” to one.
You may be an immigrant in this country illegally, but you are not an “illegal” because no human is illegal.
And woe is the reporter who describes someone who isn’t closing in on a triple-digit birthday as “elderly.”
We learn to use words with sensitivity and sense. We say a “person with a substance abuse issue” rather than a “drug abuser” because the former implies that the person has a problem, while the latter suggests the person is the problem.
People with disabilities are just that, not “the disabled.” Someone has schizophrenia but is not a “schizophrenic.”
Some may call such nuances too politically correct. I call it being respectful.
And speaking of political correctness, some words have come under a lot of scrutiny of late in political realms. We argue over whether it’s “pro-choice” or “pro-abortion,” “pro-life” or “anti-abortion.”
When another high school is shot up, we ponder whether to call that “terrorism.”
When the president of the United States uses vulgar verbiage, we question whether those words should find their way onto the front page or remain relegated to the seedy back alleys of our vernacular. By repeating them, we have to wonder whether we are blunting the impropriety of such words and coarsening the dialogue.
But how else to cover a man who shocks some and delights others with the awkward, earthy crassness of his vocabulary than to quote him verbatim?
Which brings us to two more earthy words in the news, both that begin with “c.”
The first was uttered Wednesday by comedian Samantha Bee on her TBS show “Full Frontal” in which she called Ivanka Trump a “feckless c—” in response to a tweet from the first daughter/special adviser that featured her joyously holding her child even as children are being ripped from their parents’ grasp at the border under her father’s immigration policy.
The C-word caused an uproar, especially because it was deployed days after comedian Roseanne Barr lost her TV show over tweeting a racist comparison of former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to an ape.
So extreme was this C kerfuffle that the message of Bee’s monologue – that the policy is cruel and inhumane and Ivanka is in a unique position to convince her father of that – was lost. Words that mattered went unheeded because of a single pungent one.
And by the way, how did a word for the most sacred woman-y part of a woman devolve into one so vile and misogynistic? Etymologists explain that the word has its origins in the feminine power, its variations found in many goddesses’ names. I suggest we women do as Eve Ensler of “The Vagina Monologues” suggests and reclaim our word.
The other C-word this week is New Mexico’s favorite – “chile.” Finally, after years of kvetching and cajoling, the folks at the Associated Press have agreed to revise its Stylebook entry for the red or green substance of our sustenance.
The entry now reads: It’s “chile” and “chiles” for any of a variety of spicy peppers or the sauces or gravies derived from them. The meat- and/or bean-based dish is “chili.”
Way to finally get a clue.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.