Word of the Month

Dakota Blackman

Photo Courtesy of Mark Wilson, Getty Images

hearing

[heer-ing]

noun

  1. The process, function, or power of perceiving sound; specifically : the special sense by which noises and tones are received as stimuli
  2. a : Opportunity to be heard, to present one’s side of a case, or to be generally known or appreciated

b (1): a listening to arguments (2): a preliminary examination in criminal procedure

c : a session (as of a legislative committee) in which testimony is taken from witnesses

  1. chiefly dialectical : a piece of news

Over the course of the past year, activism has erupted around topics that have slowly but steadily been creeping into the public consciousness. In the era of activism surrounding the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, hearings—as well as the absence of them—have been permeating the news. Trials and convictions for the shooting of unarmed black men and women, as well as those for cases of sexual harassment and assault, have been both present (in frequency) and elusive (in the follow through). Notably, most recently, and what sparked my curiosity about the word “hearing,” has been the four-day Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, the slated replacement for Justice Anthony Kennedy on the United States Supreme Court.

During these hearings, Senators questioned Kavanaugh regarding his stance on various political and legal issues that would affect his time on the bench. At a base level, this process is consistent with the second definition listed above: a hearing is the “opportunity to be heard, to present one’s side of a case, or to be generally known or appreciated.” It further defines a hearing as “a listening to arguments” or “a session (as of a legislative committee) in which testimony is taken from witnesses.”

Based on this definition, a hearing takes a conceptual step away from the simple nominal form of the word “hear” and adds on the process of listening for the purpose of making a decision. The process of explicitly connecting the simple act of listening to the law took about three hundred years, starting as early as the 1200’s. In the early 13th century, the verb “hear” was defined as “the perception of sound by ear,” or “the action of listening.” Originating from the old English heran, it also meant “to obey, to follow; to grant, accede to,” and—most interestingly—“to judge.” In the 1570s, the verbal noun used in the context of the law surfaced, defined as “a listening to evidence in a court of law.”

It is clear from these definitions that the verb “hear” is not just a general awareness of sound. It is also referring to the perception and understanding of that sound, meaning the act of listening is intentional, not passive. When thinking about this definition in the context of the law today, and specifically in the context of Kavanaugh’s hearings, one must question whether this definition is truly applicable. Listening with the intent to understand does not seem to be a skill in the wheelhouse of many of our politicians. White House officials and Republican Senators alike have withheld hundreds of thousands of documents about Kavanaugh’s record; conversely, confidential documents have been leaked anonymously. Kavanaugh is supported by conservative Republicans almost exclusively, and opposed by Democrats almost exclusively. The Republican agenda to push him through to confirmation seems to be motivated not by a willingness to truly listen to the arguments of those who may suffer with another conservative judge on the bench (due to his stance on Roe v. Wade or his definition of birth control, for example)—ironically, in this regard, these politicians have turned a deaf ear.

 

Word of the Month

Dakota Blackman

Pride (noun)

  1. a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.
  2. the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself or one’s importance.

Briefly: LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer—terms that are meant to represent a diversity of sexualities and gender identities. Of course, there are only five letters in this acronym and many, many more than five identities within this group. For the purposes of this article, I refer to members of the LGBTQ+ community; some members (myself included) identify with one of these terms, some identify with all, and some do not identify with any. It is not my intention to leave out or invalidate those who do not align themselves with any of these five identifiers, but instead to describe a group that, in the month of June, is remembered, acknowledged, and celebrated through pride.

Given the complex and often fraught history of LGBTQ+ rights in the United States, it is appropriate that the movement is summed up by a word of equal complexity. According to Merriam-Webster, “pride” has a myriad of definitions, but I will focus on two here: the first, bearing a neutral (or perhaps even positive) connotation, is “a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.” Conversely, the second holds a pointedly negative connotation: “the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself or one’s importance.”

The word’s etymological history, interestingly enough, mirrors the movement it describes: pride, which shares its roots with the adjective “proud,” is derived from Old English prud or prut, meaning “excellent and splendid” as well as “arrogant and haughty.” In Old English, in addition to other Indo-European languages (including Old French, Greek, and even Late Latin), there is only one word for pride, and it bears both a positive and negative connotation. In its negative form, pride is, by and large, discouraged. Perhaps most telling is the fact that pride is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins; too much pride and humans will assume they are God-like. In its positive form, some amount of pride is encouraged: it is a way to recognize one’s own achievements, “qualities, or possessions that are widely admired.”

For a very long time in the United States, being a member of the LGBTQ+ community was not considered a positive quality. Even if one was proud of their identity within this group, one had the potential to face very real and very serious repercussions for openly and visibly defying the norms of gender and sexuality. A particularly salient example of such repercussions was the 1969 police raid and subsequent riot at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. The raid was said to be due to a substandard liquor license, but police often targeted designated LGBTQ+ spaces at this time. The riot at Stonewall Inn is considered the start of the LGBT rights movement in this country because those in the community openly and actively defied mistreatment on the basis of their identities. For many today, the ability to be visible, and to have pride, largely stems from the actions of these activists who fought and continue to fight for LGBTQ+ equality.

Today, pride is not all rainbows and glitter. (It’s a fair amount of rainbows and glitter, don’t get me wrong, but there’s certainly more to it than that.) Pride, as the definition suggests, is warranted for qualities that are “widely admired,” and being a member of the LGBTQ+ community is certainly not universally accepted, much less admired. Persecution for these identities, particularly among queer and trans people of color, is still rampant. We must not lose sight of the fact that, within the LGBTQ+ movement, having pride was, and still is, an act of resistance. However, we must also remember to acknowledge that the diversity in identity, self-expression, and school of thought within this community is certainly something to be uplifted, celebrated, and—to those in the community—to be proud of.

 

Word of the Month

Dakota Blackman

 

green

adjective  \ ˈgrēn \

1. of the color green

2. covered by green growth or foliage • green fields

3a. often capitalized relating to or being an environmentalist political movement

3b. concerned with or supporting environmentalism • green consumers who practice recycling

3c. tending to preserve environmental quality (as by being recyclable, biodegradable, or nonpolluting) • greener energy solutions

 

The word “green” has always been infused with life: according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, its origins, circa the early thirteenth century, are Old High German, stemming from the word gruoni (“to grow,” specifically in reference to plants and grass). Gruoni went on to influence Old English grene and Northumbrian groene, meaning “green, the color of living plants,” or, in reference to plants, “growing, living, vigorous.”

For roughly 700 years, “green’s” definition has not veered too far from its source. The word as it exists today has over ten definitions (though I have only focused on three), and they all relate back to the natural world somehow. Take, for example, the definition meaning “not fully qualified for or experienced in a particular function,” or “deficient in training, knowledge, or experience” (i.e., a green recruit). Perhaps the connection to nature is not immediately obvious, but when considering one of green’s other definitions—“not ripened or matured,” or “fresh, new”—it becomes clearer. There is something appealing and perhaps a bit magical about a word that was borne of observing and describing nature in its innate state: growing, living, and vigorous.

In the twentieth century, “green” began to shift into a decidedly more political word, wherein humans moved from observing nature to taking an active part in its protection and preservation. Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970, and, a year later, the organization Greenpeace was founded for the purpose of, according to their website, “expos[ing] global environmental problems and promot[ing] solutions that are essential to a green and peaceful future.” Although Greenpeace has been a source of controversy and criticism, both it and Earth Day exemplify the third definition of “green,” which means “relating to or being an environmentalist political movement,” or “concerned with or supporting environmentalism.” The Green political movement has spanned nearly fifty years since its inception (in the United States, environmental protection has been a key issue for closer to one hundred years; the word green has simply come into play more recently). This movement spans strategies and scales, from direct anarchist actions to the outgrowth of green roofs in urban centers to individual efforts to compost. The connection to nature is still direct and explicit in this last definition, but the key difference is our own agency; in order to keep nature growing, living, and vigorous, we now have a responsibility to respect and protect it.

 

Word of the Month

 

Dakota Blackman

 

Woman

noun | wom·an  | ˈwu̇-mən , especially Southern ˈwō- or ˈwə- |

an adult female person

 

The word’s primary definition is simple enough: according to Merriam-Webster, a woman is “an adult female person.” Also according to Merriam-Webster, it is in the top 10% of most-used online words. This is hardly a surprise. Feminism (a noun which Merriam-Webster defines as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes”) is now in its fourth wave. Its current focus is on using social media to amplify opposition to all-too-common phenomena of violence against women, with an emphasis on sexual harassment. Feminism is seeping into popular culture as well. Beyonce’s song ***Flawless, for example, samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: in the middle of the song, we hear the activist read a few lines from her now-famous speech “Why We Should All Be Feminists.” Adichie says, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man.”

 

This brief excerpt highlights what is most interesting to me about woman’s definition: in these few lines, Adichie reinforces the word’s inherent binary. Through the comparison of women to men (specifically, of girls to boys), she places women on one side of this binary, and men on the other. Interestingly, this binary is also reflected in the language: while a woman is defined as a “female person,” a man, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an individual human; especially an adult male human.” The gendered caveat of the word man lies only in the qualifying clause, skewing baseline humanity with maleness. Woman’s etymology further supports this: it is derived from the Old English word wifman, which itself combines the words wife and man—the former being the Old English synonym for woman, the latter being synonymous for human. The word “man” not only has more definitions than woman, but these definitions also extend beyond the confines of gender and even traverse into different parts of speech (the verb meaning to control or supply, for example). So not only is the word woman binarized, it is also linguistically upholds a gendered inequality. However, this binary does not solely exist within the confines of the language; it has somewhat insidiously entrenched itself into the norms of our culture. In fact, it is so subtly embedded that it can impact the way in which women think and feel about themselves and each other.

 

The word is especially appropriate given that March is Women’s History Month. It has been recognized as such in the United States only since 1995; before this, starting in 1981, just one week in March was celebrated as Women’s History Week. This week, and later the month, builds on the celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8th, which has been recognized in the United States since the year 1909, but was only recognized by the United Nations starting in 1975. (It became a national holiday in Soviet Russia in 1917.) The resilience of the women’s movement is always striking when its history is considered, particularly in a country like the United States, which touts equality and progressivism in its ideological foundations. Women’s History Month has only, within the past twenty-odd years, been adopted as a mainstream, national holiday. It can be disheartening to think about how much more work needs to be done, particularly when the definition of the word “woman” upholds an innate inequality. Yet, one of language’s most beautiful characteristics is that it can be fluid and dynamic; with work, the norms embedded both in our language and our society have the potential to change.

 

Word of the Month

 

Dakota Blackman 

 

smitten 

adjective  smit·ten  \ ˈsmi-tᵊn \ 

deeply affected with or struck by strong feelings of attraction, affection, or infatuation 

Greek statue entitled ‘Eros (Cupid) Sleeping’ from the 3rd-2nd century B.C.

The month of February often conjures up the all too familiar images related to Valentine’s Day: heart-shaped chocolates and balloons, bouquets of flowers, and Hallmark cards passed between young children at school and between romantic partners. In the United States, Valentine’s Day is a day dedicated to celebrating love—often, to celebrate the state of being smitten. 

I am interested in this particular word because, in addition to its form as an adjective, smitten is also the past participle of smite. Smite, a verb, has two definitions, the first of which is “to be strongly attracted to somebody or something,” or “to captivate.” In the context of this definition, the derivation of the adjective smitten is intuitive. However, smite’s second definition takes a dramatic 180° turn, from something soft to something harsh and  violent: “to take,” or “to strike with a firm blow.” 

According to Merriam-Webster, smite originates from a twelfth century Middle English word meaning to smear or defile; the dictionary likens it to an Old High German word with a similar meaning. As it relates to romantic love, this definition is almost paradoxical. Perhaps “captivate” or “take” make sense (Merriam-Webster’s example sentence cites being captivated by a woman’s beauty), but for this word to also be defined by violence produces a fascinating contradiction: why are the two linked? 

To answer this question, we can look to another common Valentine’s Day symbol that stems from Greek and Roman mythology: the God of love, Cupid. Usually portrayed as a young and winged boy, Cupid is armed with a bow and arrow; anyone who is struck by one of his arrows, mortal or not, is overcome by affection and love. Cupid’s very existence takes into account both sides of smite’s definitions: the first being the gentle inspiration of love; the second being the violent mechanism by which love is inspired. In some depictions, he is wearing armor as he works to matchmake. This begs the question: does this interpretation fall into the softer definition of smite, suggesting that love is invincible or impenetrable? Or does it fall into the harsher one, likening love to war? 

Perhaps these definitions cannot be parsed into a binary. Instead, perhaps they must be considered together, particularly in the context of romance, of love, and of relationships generally. In the past six months in the United States, there has been a massive eruption of reports of sexual misconduct, particularly regarding high-profile and powerful men. The catalyst was Ronan Farrow’s exposé on Harvey Weinstein in the New Yorker, and from it has stemmed a resurgence of activist Tarana Burke’s social media hashtag #MeToo. Now known as the MeToo movement, the premise is, according to Burke, to “promote empowerment through empathy” by sharing among women, particularly those who are vulnerable (for example, young women of color), the all too prevalent experience of sexual misconduct. Alyssa Milano, an actress who encouraged spreading the hashtag after the stories of Weinstein surfaced, explained it as follows: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” 

It is important to dissociate from love the type of behavior displayed by Weinstein (and many, many others). However, it is equally important to remember the duality of smite’s definition, and to remember Cupid’s bow and arrow, and armor when thinking about love and relationships as they exist today, particularly in the context of the MeToo movement. Those in positions of power have been forced to confront the issue of accountability, some for the first time, and these considerations will then hopefully trickle down into more of an awareness when it comes to fair and healthy relationships. 

When one is smitten, one is, according to the word’s definition, “deeply affected” by feelings. It is imperative to take into account the depth of this impact. As the language suggests, relationships—and love—hold great power.