Word Choice: By Julie Rigano When I was growing up, my grandfather had a phrase he would say whenever a job was done, but not perfect: “Good enough for the girls we date.” It wasn’t until a few years after he passed that I realized how problematic that phrase is. Partly due to this phrase, I grew up with the belief that there were some women that were better than others and we should treat them accordingly.
I love language and I always try to be cognizant of my word choice. How do the words we choose reflect on us? What do they really mean? How are they heard?
Another favorite saying of mine growing up was, “long time, no see.” This phrase has murky beginnings, either originating from a Native American, tribe not identified, or from Mandarin Chinese. The first time the phrase was in print was in 1900 Western Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains, Or, the Last Voice from the Plains An Authentic Record of a Life Time of Hunting, Trapping, Scouting and Indian Fighting in the Far West, by William F. Drannan. Drannan uses the phrase to describe an encounter with a Native American he had previously met; the Native American man allegedly said, “Good morning. Long time no see you.”
Another well regarded theory for the origin of the phrase “long time, no see” is from the Mandarin Chinese phrase “好久不见” or “hǎojǐu bújiàn,” which means exactly “long time, no see.” Again, the origins are murky though some believe the phrase was brought back to England by members of the British Navy, who picked it up through the pidgin English used by the Chinese people they encountered.
Regardless of the origins, the earliest written usages of the phrase are all by native English speakers allegedly reporting the speech of non-native speakers during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The “Applied Applied Linguistics” blog points out a major flaw in this reporting: “The literature of that era is rife with stylized English attributed to non-native speakers — can we trust it?” What is clear is that this phrase was used to mock the broken English of non-native speakers as another way to other and infantilize people who were already regarded as “less than,” providing false justification for their inferiority and continued oppression.
It’s difficult sometimes to find out that words and sayings I learned as a child have a whole different meaning or history than I was aware of. This is part of the unlearning process that we all need to do. I still catch myself saying or thinking these phrases even though I know they are problematic. Habits are hard to break, and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do the hard work to break those habits.
 Gandhi, Lakshmi, “Who First Said ‘Long Time, No See’ And In Which Language?” http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/03/09/288300303/who-first-said-long-time-no-see-and-in-which-language
 Joel, “Long Time No Figure It Out” http://appappling.blogspot.com/2012/02/long-time-no-figure-this-out.html
What motivates me to continue to do this hard work of unlearning the racist and sexist things I was taught growing up is knowing how these words affect people. What’s more important to me: a phrase or respecting the worth and dignity of all people? A phrase or not implicitly internalizing values I disagree with?
One of the ways I try to bend the arc of the universe toward justice, or even my personal arc, is to be intentional about the words I choose and to know what I’m saying or implying with my word choice. We communicate much more than words when we talk; we communicate ideas and values. Word choice is another way we can live our principles.