Isaiah Washington, who plays the surgeon Preston Burke on the ABC drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” is under fire for purportedly calling his castmate T.R. Knight (George) a “faggot” during an on-set argument last October with another castmate, Patrick Dempsey (McDreamy). Some say this is what prompted Knight to publicly reveal that he is gay.

Washington used the term again at the January Golden Globes while denying to a reporter that he had ever used the word. After being criticized by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and ABC, he then issued a public apology.

Now Washington is set to do his part to educate the public about the cruelty of name-calling. This announcement comes at the start of GLSEN’s “No Name-Calling Week,” where they partner with schools to work toward the elimination of slurs and bullying.

I guess a lot of people believe in the sticks and stones philosophy of linguistics, or like many young English students, don’t get just how commanding and perception altering one word can be. Even our president engages in name-calling with other countries as a matter of course, and with his colleagues and underlings as a regular, frat-boy-esque practice (if you haven’t yet, watch Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary of Bush’s first campaign for president. Read about it and her new project here.)

As a writer, words are my, well, everything. I don’t like to repeat any words when I write, which on the whole isn’t possible (I’ve already used “I” twice so far just in this sentence), so I stick to the larger adjectives and verbs. I like to uncover archaic expressions that get closer to the meaning I’m trying to impart, and love co-opting sayings in other languages that communicate something more precisely than I can in English (like the Farsi word heez). I have fun trying to resurrect in common usage words that have fallen out of favor, such as “dippy” (although UC Berkeley students in the mid ‘90s just wouldn’t take the bait). I long ago signed up for daily word emails from Wordsmith and the OED so I can continue to build vocabulary and learn history behind terms (I learned, for instance, that the word toucanet, used repeatedly by a night-walk guide during my 2005 visit to Costa Rica, is actually a real word referring to smaller toucans, and is related to toucanity, which according to the OED is “the character of a toucan.” I just adore things like that). I also love listening to My Word on public radio, and I once talked the night through, whilst drinking absinthe at the UEA graduate pub, about whether my friend Donna Daley-Clarke should in her novel-in-progress refer to her character’s cat as a she or an it.

But I’m not the only one who loves words, and who thinks one must be purposeful and exact with them, and wield them carefully and responsibly.

The central character and narrator of Y. Euny Hong’s debut novel “Kept,” returns home after a date and stays up late looking up in the dictionary the words he used to describe her, “pondering all [their] possible nuances.” Hong is herself a charming wordsmith.

Ancient Hawaiians believed that a word, once spoken aloud, became an entity capable of carrying out actual events. They also believed that their gods had returned in the actual words of the Bible. (see Beckwith, “Lesser Gods” in Hawaiian Mythology).

By tracing Huck’s language in reference to Jim in Huckleberry Finn, one can deduce his personal struggle between seeing Jim as a person and as an it. (Thanks to Ed Moore’s talk for reminding me of this.)

There are other examples, but as it is late in the day and I am feeling the press of time, so I’ll bring this to a close. But, finding my way from Jim and Huck back up to Washington and Knight, I guess I think it’s both disheartening that our society hasn’t come far enough, even if now it’s an African-American slurring another minority group, and also inspiring that language is actually being taken seriously.

It’s interesting to see that another force, other than writers, editors and English teachers, is working for the precise and considered use of words.

Advertisements