Words Matter: Meaning and power

Sally McConnell-Ginet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 320pp, £17.99 (paperback)
ISBN 978 1 10 844590 0

Reviewed by Ruth Durbridge

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If you want to know what Humpty Dumpty and an American president have in common, read this book, which will both enlighten and challenge you. Written by the American sociolinguist and semanticist Sally McConnell-Ginet, Words Matter: Meaning and power explores the historical background and the contemporary political and everyday use of the language of labelling, marking, generalising, addressing, putting down, reforming/resisting and authorising before explaining her ‘takeaways’ from this detailed and potent exercise. Of note is that the reader is never told what to say or do.

As the text grows, through its carefully considered structure, there is increasing sociolinguistic attention to the themes of racism, white supremacism, sexism, feminism, linguistic activism and less-known -isms. A strength of the book is that the author recalls specific stories and cases which have touched the US, the UK and, indeed, the world relatively recently, and explains, from a linguist’s point of view, the social landscape at the time, along with the social effect of events on other people. A particular example given is the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighbourhood ‘watchman’, having killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in 2012, because he saw ‘something suspicious’ and had to defend himself. It is argued by linguists that the testimony from Martin’s girlfriend as main witness was largely ignored by the jurors because she used a variety of African American Vernacular English in court. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was the result of the ensuing furore.

In a different vein, the author discusses examples of noun aversion, famously the statement: ‘I have lied but I’m not a liar’ made by Michael Cohen, then President Trump’s lawyer, in his testimony to the US Congress in March 2019. His denial of the label ‘liar’ did not have the desired effect of distancing himself from his ‘master’; the ‘enslaver’, or person of power, used the label against him.

McConnell-Ginet frequently draws attention to the present issue of personal gender pronouns (she/her, he/him) versus the semantically singular ‘they’, which avoids binary gender categorisation. Furthermore, she cites plenty of examples of the pejorative language that traditionally has represented men’s power over women, particularly questioning the current meaning of the word ‘rape’ in light of the social context of the LGBTQ community. Indeed, we learn, if we did not know already, that dictionary definitions are just a part of the word story and that term usage shifts over time; thus, ‘fireman’ has become ‘firefighter’, ‘short’ is also known as ‘vertically changed’, the ‘N-word’ has been definitively replaced by ‘African American’ and ‘same-sex marriage’ is common vocabulary.

Words Matter is academic yet accessible, with detailed notes set at the end of each chapter. The book is a feast of professional development for editors and proofreaders who are trying to get their heads around US editorial styles, hints at the challenges of contemporary lexicography, provides much content for thoughtful debate and, importantly, sensitively guides us in our thinking when we check, correct and change text, and offer advice to authors.

This review was written just a week after the 2020 US presidential election. Name-calling, for example ‘mentally ill monsters’ by Mr Trump when blaming a mass shooting in a Walmart store in Texas in August 2019 on the de-institutionalisation of mentally ill people, is unacceptable, surely. Whether the use of ‘Latinx’ and ‘Mx’ will be my Words Matter takeaways, though, is doubtful.

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