We are spendthrifts with words,

We squander them, / Toss them like pennies in the air–

I think about words, constantly. When I am not writing them, I am editing them. When I am not editing them, I am thinking about how to write them. When I am not thinking about how to write them, I am reading. When I am not reading, I am thinking about what I have read.

Words are how I understand how I feel. They are how I navigate and survive the world. They are also my readiest and deadliest weapons.

This morning I woke up thinking about how words wound; how they can embody and reflect and uphold power structures and bigoted systems. How our very defensiveness over them — it’s just a word! it doesn’t mean anything — gives the game away. How when we insist that they matter — how could you say something like that? — we are considered frivolous, over sensitive, too woke. I’d been dreaming about how I’d explain to someone why and how the words we use (and don’t) to describe this — pandemic, crisis, emergency — matter.

Wuhan, flu. SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19. Virus, disease. Patient zero, super-spreader. Isolate, quarantine. Liberate, lockdown. Flatten, curve. Protective, distance. Acceptable, expected. Risks, deaths. Patient, victim. Virulent, asymptomatic. Tested, known. False positive, false negative. Press conference, propaganda. Deserve, handout. Stimulus, small-business. Essential, hero. Underpaid, expendable.

I think about how words shape and create norms. How they uplift and oppress. How they reveal and obscure.

I think about James Baldwin, that ferocious wordsmith, who said: “I think what you have to do, which is the difficult thing about a writer, is avoid slogans. You have to have the [guts] to protest the slogan, no matter how noble it may sound. It always hides something else; the writer should try to expose what it hides.”


We are spendthrifts with words,
We squander them,
Toss them like pennies in the air–
Arrogant words,
Angry words,
Cruel words,
Comradely words,
Shy words tiptoeing from mouth to ear.

But the slowly wrought words of love
and the thunderous words of heartbreak–
Those we hoard.

Words, by Pauli Murray