Caution—they’re only words

In the wake of the recent tragedy in Arizona, the aftermath, and the complicated attempts to determine whether the incendiary rhetoric espoused by Palin, the Tea Party and various media personalities, I have a feeling that we may be missing the point.

And the point—my point—is that this particular instance doesn’t matter. No, please don’t misunderstand me—the tragic loss of lives and injuries to the victims, and the suffering to the families matters very much. What I mean is that whether in this specific instance the murderous shooter was influenced by the uninhibited words—that is what does not matter. And it does not matter, because if it turns out that he was not influenced by the verbal violence (but merely ‘deranged’ from within), it is only coincidental and then the next shooter surely will be primed by words.

Much has been said about the significance of words—the literal significance—in the media, and also recently here in an excellent blog entitled “Words like bullets”. From my non-statistical sampling, I think there is general agreement that words do matter.

And yet—are we all as cautious as we should be with our expressions?

Many of us have scientific training, and clearly understand how a manuscript can be rapidly rejected for making unsubstantiated claims, or because we are not cautious enough in our interpretations. We are careful to note that “protein X often interacts with protein Y” or “protein X may interact with protein Y”. Writing that “protein X interacts with protein Y” could be, in some cases, an exaggeration that leads to rejection of the manuscript. But outside science, are we as cautious with our own words?

I frequently come across the “Oh My God” or ubiquitous “OMG” phrase. I’m willing to bet that this is also popular among sworn atheists. Another phrase that sends shivers down my back is “Thank God”. Yes, I may be an atheist—but if one thinks about it, it’s even worse for a believer to utter that phrase. Why is that?

Well, if a woman crosses the street, and is nearly hit by a car, she may say “Thank God I wasn’t hit”. If she is a believer, then in effect, she is thankful to God for stepping in to save her from being killed. What does this say about the morals of this God who concurrently allows thousands of children to die that very day from leukemia, typhoid, HIV, malaria or simply starvation? Why thank him at all?

My intention was not to start a theological discussion, nor to become the “word police”. And I know that usually that phrase is not meant to be literal (although sometimes it is). But I do think that words and phrases carry baggage—some of it hidden and inconspicuous—but nonetheless there are associated meanings that come with words.

Does it matter? I think it does.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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12 Responses to Caution—they’re only words

  1. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    One thing I’ve heard after every disaster that’s ever made the news is a survivor saying “someone was looking out for me that day, that’s why I survived”. I remember lots of examples after the massive Tsunami in Indonesia and surrounding areas. So you’re saying that whoever looked after you didn’t care about the thousands upon thousands of other people out there that day, who died? Because you’re special?

    It makes me angry.

    Yes, words matter!

    (Sorry. I mean that I have evidence to support the hypothesis that words may sometimes matter, under certain conditions)

  2. Stephen says:

    Words do matter but sometimes the meaning is not properly understood by the users (for whom they therefore don’t really matter). We had a phrase in common parlance as as I growing up in Northern Ireland which was to “work like a black”.

    It was only after I came to London as a student that I paused to think what this might mean. There were no black people in NI in my day so there were was no racial connotation to the phrase in my mind, even if in retrospect it seems unbelievably obvious.

    I would like to assure you it’s not a phrase I use any more!

    • Steve Caplan says:


      That’s a very interesting phrase, to say the least. I’m wondering whether it was used as in “hard work”, “obedient work”, “mindless work”? I agree with you altogether that ignorance of words among the users is probably very common. A friend of mine who is Jewish recently told me how at gathering with his wife’s family (who are not Jewish), someone told him that he recently bought a car and had been “jewed”. Straight back to the days of Shakespeare’s Shylock….

  3. Stephen says:

    The particular meaning of the phrase, as I recall, was that you had worked very hard – in effect, like a slave. I guess, in a similar vein, I shouldn’t be shocked by an expression like ‘jewed’ (which I’ve never heard) bit it is pretty shocking.

  4. rpg says:

    I remember being taken to task for daring to suggest that saying, in a seminar, that a protein was ‘designed’ to do something was evidence of sloppy thinking.

    Now look at you, all hoity-toity about language.


  5. rpg says:

    I’m not. What I was saying is that saying stuff is ‘designed’ in a biological sense is not a helpful way of thinking about things. Especially if you have impressionables sitting around.

  6. rpg says:

    Don’t mess with the rpg …. 🙂

    (srsly, I have no idea why you have to do that.)

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