The Words We Choose

At the moment, I’m doing a series of creative workshops with a group of people. We’re working on a writing project which will lead to the publication of a small book of poems. It’s an enjoyable experience, and the people are enthusiastic and attentive. Many words are used to describe the people I’m working with, and these words have evolved over time. The choice of words used to describe them is the cause of much debate. The organisation they attend for services is referred to as an intellectual disability association.

Disability Pic
What words should be used to describe people with disabilities?

When it comes to defining things that are delicate or that are hard to define, there are three approaches that people take.

Minimising the Impact

Some people like to name things in a way that reduces the emotional impact this may cause. These people would refer to my budding writers as having special needs. Their intention is to spare people’s feelings, but there is a danger that you could be seen to fudge the issue. What is so wrong with naming a thing for what it is? Also, some terms that seem kind are actually quite vague. What special needs do these people have? And doesn’t everyone have special needs?

No Names Needed

Other people go a step further and prefer to use no terminology at all. A well-known journalist was recently interviewed about his daughter, who has Down Syndrome. He was asked what words the family used to describe her condition. He said, ‘We just call her by her name.’

As a parent, he has more than earned the right to use whatever words he wants, or no words at all. But the reality is that his daughter has a condition and at some point, words need to be used to describe it. Besides, having Down Syndrome isn’t something that needs to be hidden. It’s just another aspect of a person, like their allegiance to a football team or their love of cheesy pop music.

Finding Comfort in Names

And then there are people who like things to be named, to be defined. They find comfort in having things named in a way that accurately describes them. They feel that words give shape to complex feelings, thoughts and concepts. But there is a danger that in seeking this comfort, they can define a person too rigidly by their condition.

For example, these are the people who are inclined to use a phrase like mentally retarded. It’s true that in its original sense, this phrase conveys the concept of a brain that is delayed in its function, so that it takes longer for the affected person to reach life’s milestones. But the connotations of this phrase now, of inferiority, of damage, means that its use is frowned upon.

Intellectual disability is the term that has come to replace it. The organisation I’m working for clearly deems it suitable as a way to describe people whose brains work differently. But ultimately, if we want to know which words are the right ones to describe the people I’m working with, we must let ourselves be guided by them, and by their loved ones.

As I said, this is a subject that attracts lively debate. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you approach the naming of delicate things, whether it relates to disability or to other sensitive situations.

 

Quenching the Light

On a Saturday morning, I was making my usual journey up the main street of the town where I live, to run some errands. As it’s a tourist town, the streets were a little busier than usual, and I found myself trapped behind a family of four who were streeling along the footpath, at tourist pace.

I thought I’d shake them off when we reached a road crossing, as there is a shop on that crossing that’s crammed with delights for children. But they carried on up the path. I passed out the father, but the mother and her two little girls formed a chain on the footpath. I resigned myself to tucking in behind them. After all, I wasn’t in that much of a hurry.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

The middle girl in the chain turned to her mother and said, ‘Mum, when we’re bigger, this will be the olden days, won’t it?’ She was a shrimp of a child, around five or six, a small seven at most. How did her mother greet this wonderful display of abstract thought, of creativity, of imagination? With a muttered yes.

Maybe this child was a relentless talker, and the mother was simply weary from a morning of listening to constant chatter. Also, at that moment, the father turned abruptly and opened the door of a chip shop. ‘I’m getting something to eat,’ he announced. I imagined this behaviour also fed into the mother’s weariness. Either way, I wondered how many of these in different responses it would take before that child’s light was quenched.

light switched off
How long does it take for a child’s light to be quenched?

 

Three Things You Need to Know About the French

Yesterday (14 July) was Bastille Day in France, a proud day for a people with a proud history. The French may not wield the same clout as they once did on the world stage, but for many of us, their culture is still the by-word for sophistication. If advertisers want to associate their products with elegance and culture, they’ll use French-sounding voices and music.

I myself am a Francophile. I love French wine, French cheese and French bread. We’ll glide gently past their pop music and their comedy. And I admire French people: their independence of spirit, their intellectual rigour, the fact that they mean what they say. The French are sometimes thought to be arrogant. I think they’re misunderstood, so to celebrate them this Bastille Day weekend, I’ve come up with some observations which I hope will make it easier to understand their funny little ways. They’re not exactly scientific, but they’re true to my experience of French people.

They Will Correct Your French

The French are proud of their language – and rightly so. It’s a sensual feast of a language, with those silky sounds, the elegant words, the rich meaning behind some of their everyday phrases. And they’re very particular about how it’s spoken. When you make a faux pas (sorry, couldn’t resist), they’ll rush in to correct you. They don’t consider it rude – after all, the purity of their language is at stake. Try not to bristle when they do it – they genuinely believe they’re helping you. In a way, it’s a compliment. They think you speak the language well enough to be worth correcting.

They Kiss, But It’s Not Affectionate

People tend to think of the French as an affectionate, touchy-feely people, because of all the kissing they do – between two and four kisses per person depending on the region. But the French just use the kiss as a form of greeting, much the same as a handshake for the rest of us. It’s an impersonal gesture, with the lips barely touching the cheek. The French kiss regardless of the level of relationship, whereas other nations save their kisses and hugs for those they’re closest to.

They Drink One Glass of Wine

Glass of Wine
The French derive pleasure from just one glass of wine.

This is aimed at Irish readers of this post. We may aspire to drink like the French, who appear to live long and prosper on a diet of red wine. But it’s never going to happen. We are all-or-nothing drinkers, while the French drink one glass of wine at a sitting, no more and no less. They immerse themselves fully in the pleasure of that glass and they drink it without guilt. If we want to drink like French people, we will need to learn to see it not as an enemy, nor as a route to oblivion, but as a source of sensual pleasure.

Are you a Francophile or a Francophobe? Do my observations about the French chime with you? What have you yourself noticed about them?

 

The Unloved Journal

I stumbled upon the journal in a charity shop. Its green cover drew me in. I ran my fingers over it. Its surface was smooth and firm, and it fit neatly into the curve of my hand. In My Humble Opinion, it was called.

The pages on the left hand side featured gloriously scornful quotes about the idiocy of the human race, set against colourful backgrounds. Perfect for a crank like me. The pages on the right-hand side were lined with wide, well-defined lines, which gave an impression of space despite the journal’s small size.

A Loving Inscription

How did such a beautiful object come to be washed up in a charity shop? That was certainly not its intended destination, going by the inscription on the inside cover. It was made out to someone called Enright, and the giver said she couldn’t resist buying the journal for Enright, because it was made for her. Going by the appearance of the journal, I’m not sure that Enright agreed with her. The cover was pristine, and there were no cracks in the binding. Overall, the journal appeared untouched by human hand.

The Unloved Journal
Now a loved journal: someone else’s trash became my treasure

I wrote my own note underneath the inscription. ‘Why didn’t you write in this? Why didn’t you make the time to fill its pages?’ Reproachful, I know, but I couldn’t stand the thought of this beautiful object being doomed to a life of neglect.

I like to think though, that the love and in the inscription have passed on to me. I was not the intended recipient, but I have cracked it open. I chortle at the quotes and fill its pages with nonsense. And I am quite grateful to this Enright. Her trash became my treasure.

 

The Little Friend

‘I loved that book you recommended to me,’ said my friend, as we picked over the spoils of our tea and scones. ‘I told the book club about it and it was our book of the month. They all loved it too.’

A warm glow spread through me, a glow that went deeper than tea and scones.

‘I told them a little friend of mine recommended it to me.’

Some of the glow seeped out of me. I’m on the small side, but I’m not especially small. So what prompted her to use the word little? Even though I’m on the cusp of middle age, I’m still young enough to be her daughter.

To her, I was little because I had not yet accumulated the years of life experience that she had. But I feel I’ve accumulated enough life experience to move beyond being described as little.

*****

A group of us sat around a table on a sunny summer evening. The host was a great cook and produced tender steak, accompanied by a salad and floury potatoes. Salad does not usually delight my tastebuds, but this one was redeemed by the tomatoes, which tasted of sun. When I bit into them, they released jets of sweet juice.

‘Where did you get these tomatoes?’ I asked the host. ‘THey’re sensational.’

‘Oh, there’s a little man who sells them at the market.’ she said. ‘He’s there every Saturday. He’s marvellous.’

little man
Was he really a little man?

Is he really small, I itched to ask. Or is he a man with a little job?

In the wrong hands, words can become grenades.