Why Words Matter

Last week, I stood in line at a cafe behind a couple of Vanderbilt University students who just returned to campus for the beginning of the school year. The girl in front of me, dressed in her fashionable summer clothes and dangly jewelry, was inconvenienced that she could not use her meal card until next week. "Well, how am I supposed to pay for my meal then?" she asked in a huff. "I'm poor!"

Healthy women call themselves "fat."

People who haven't yet had lunch call themselves "starving."

A person annoyed with his 30-minute circumstance proclaims, "Just shoot me now!"

The words we use are relative to our experience. So you are very hungry, relative to what your stomach normally expects. Or you are not as skinny, relative to the airbrushed models on today's magazines. Or you are low on immediate cash, relative to what it was like before you had to take out student loans for a world-class college education.

Of course, the Vanderbilt student knows she isn't poor in the way the term was intended. And no American with a growling stomach from the long stretch between breakfast and lunch truly believes he or she is starving. And I imagine that someone who is annoyed just wants the annoyance to go away, and is not actually suffering something so drastic that dying would be better.

It just reminded me that words matter, and I want to be more careful about the statements I make without forethought.