I was seven years old when I first learned to appreciate the power of language. Children in the playground called me names because of my wonky face and fat lip.
One word that sometimes passed over my peers’ lips was ‘harelip,’ an archaic term for cleft lip, which according to the Oxford dictionary originated in the mid 16th century from cleft lip’s perceived resemblance to the mouth of a hare.
As a child and teenager, that word haunted me, and even now, I struggle to say (and write) it and hearing someone else using it, no matter how innocently, makes my blood freeze. But whereas once I’d run a mile to avoid this most demeaning of words, I now refuse to let the mention of it pass unchallenged.
That’s why, yesterday, when I came upon this word in the editorial of a major Swedish newspaper, I wasted no time to send off a letter to the journalist explaining my position. It was not the first time I wrote such a letter; over the years I’ve written to journalists, editors and once to a comedian who’d talked about ‘harelip’ in an otherwise fantastic show. Sometimes I’d received a reply, but for the most part, I’d hear nothing back.
Those who do respond, often defend their usage with comments like,
“Oh, but I meant no harm, it’s just a word,”
“If it’s in the dictionary, I can use it,”
“Don’t be so bloody p.c.,”
“It’s my democratic right to use whatever word I want even if it’s offensive to others.”
The last argument is a tricky one for I too believe in the freedom of speech, and I don’t shy away from saying things for fear I might offend someone. But with rights come responsibilities, and when language is used that dehumanise another person, we’re not only violating that person, we’re corrupting the very principle of freedom of speech.
On several occasions, journalists, in particular, have told me that using ‘harelip’ is justified because it’s a word people will recognise more readily than the medical term, cleft lip. The fact that I, a woman born with a cleft lip and palate, feel hurt and dehumanised by such terminology, is of little consequence. But just as it is not a white person’s prerogative to determine whether or not a word is offensive to black people, neither is it ok for someone not born with a cleft to judge whether or not ‘harelip’ constitutes acceptable terminology.
The right to judge whether a word is dehumanising, racist or otherwise debasing, ultimately rests with those who are on the receiving end of that word. For no one else can legitimately claim to fully appreciate the historical, social and emotional meaning of that word.
This is not political correctness gone mad, nor is it nit-picking. As anyone who works with language knows, words have power; the power to bring people together, to heal and embrace another; and the power to humiliate, shame and dehumanise. That is why the words we choose matter so much.