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Getting Clear About Words

By Cultures Of Dignity | September 2, 2022

At Cultures of Dignity we often talk about the importance of getting clear about the words we use, in particular, the words we use with young people. When using the words dignity and respect with students and educators we make sure to discuss the root meaning and definition of each word. Respect comes from the Latin word respectus, meaning “to look back at.” Respect is earned. Dignity is from the Latin word dignitas, meaning “to be worthy.” Dignity is inherent, we all have it, and we all have the same amount, no matter what. Knowing where words come from and their true meaning helps everyone have a shared understanding. This carries over to the phrases we use in our everyday lives. (For more information about dignity and respect check out this blog.)

While many phrases have a historical context, for example, resting on your laurels refers back to Apollo, the Greek God of music, poetry, and prophecy. Apollo was often depicted as wearing a ring of laurel leaves which eventually became a symbol of status and achievement. Generals who won important battles were presented with a wreath of laurels. After their success they were then able to “rest on their laurels” and enjoy the success of past achievements. In the 1800s the phrase took on a negative connotation for someone that may be overly satisfied with past triumphs. (For more phrases and information check out this list.)

While some phrases have a sense of accomplishment or glory attached to them, there are many others that come from places of hurt or oppression that we may have never considered. Have you ever thought about where the phrase Eenie Meenie Miney Mo comes from? This commonly used phrase that children often employ when trying to make a tough choice seems innocent enough but until fairly recently the word tiger in the rhyme was actually the “n” word. The whole phrase was historically used by slave owners to describe catching slaves that may have run away. Understanding the history gives a whole new appreciation of the phrase and can encourage us to help young people to find another phrase to use when making hard choices! For more about these types of phrases check out this list.

Understanding language is critical when working with young people. It can level the playing field by creating a shared language in a classroom where everyone is using words in a similar way. It is important for adults to understand how their students interpret certain words used in education and why. So while knowing the history of words and phrases can help students feel safe and included, it is also important to talk about words used everyday in the classroom. We call these “watered-down words.” Adults often overuse words like self-respect, grit, and mindfulness. While these words and phrases have a place in our schools, sometimes they can shut down conversations with students. If we use them too often they can lose their meaning or sometimes the meaning is unclear. A fun classroom activity is to ask everyone to make a list of overused words, you included. Then share the lists and see how many people wrote the same words. Students love the opportunity to talk about the words adults overuse and it gives adults a chance to add more clarity to the words being used, creating an open dialogue in your classroom.

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