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Disciplining delinquent words



Sins have often been divided into those of thought, word and deed, with deed regarded as the worst. Today we pay more attention to sinful words, realising the harm that they can do. Bad words can bring social exclusion. Yet complex questions surrounding the use of words remain. 

One set of questions asks who has the right to speak or write about particular experiences and about particular groups. Are only people who have had a particular experience or who are members of the same gender, race or social class entitled to speak or tell stories about people in those groups?

A second area of discussion concerns the kinds of words that are unacceptable when used to describe groups of people. These include pejorative words used to refer to people of particular race, nationality, religion, social background, appearance or physical traits. There is general agreement that such words should not be used to or of people.

Behind this question, however, lies a more general discussion about the use of generic language to describe persons who belong to a group. We have become more aware of how generic language can conceal the unique humanity of people whom we place in the group. It has made refugee advocates to switch from speaking of asylum seekers to speak of people who seek protection, of people who are imprisoned, and so on.

Even that change, however, still tends to identify persons with their lack of home and freedom, and to neglect their agency . Similarly, it may be better to speak of people whose hearing is impaired than about the deaf, but we are still identifying persons with a defect that accentuates difference and so might evoke pity or fear rather than a desire for closer acquaintance. 

A final range of questions concerns how to curb the improper use of words. There has been a move to make offensive language liable to civil penalties. People with a public profile have been shamed and forced to resign for using inappropriate words, and offending books are at risk of removal from libraries and curricula. 


'Outlawing words can distract from the deeper truth that words draw their power to build and destroy from the relationships that shape us.'


Each of these sets of questions demands to be considered separately, but they all also need to be set with a wider reflection about the place that words have in human life and relationships. Such reflection suggests that words have a protean quality which makes it difficult to codify their use in a rigid way.

That reflection will necessarily begin by asking what it means to be human. In my understanding each human being is unique and has a value that does not depend on their economic or social usefulness but reflects their innate human dignity. Each person is a unique centre of value. That said, however, each human being is also shaped by their myriad interlocking relationships to their world and to their fellow human beings. Each of these relationships, too, is shaped by other relationships that stretch out in time and space in uncountable ways. Our relationships to our own family, for example, are coloured uniquely by our personal history, by our parents’ histories and relationships, by our friends, churches and other communities, our environment and by the relationships involved in the history of all these. 

The words that I use to describe my world and to communicate with others have a shared meaning. My own understanding and use of words, however, are coloured and given depth by the vast network of interlocking relationships that shape my identity and world. For ordinary business, for example, we may all understand what a gun is. But my understanding of what a gun means will be very different from that of someone who has lived in a world of marauding gangs that shot and killed at will. This is a simple example, but it suggests how words used to describe more complex realities such as race, religion, political allegiance, gender and morality can carry a very different resonance to different people, particularly if they are bound into a network of traumatic relationships. Using the same words doesn’t necessarily put us all on the same page. 

The complexity and variety of relationships means that words which denote people who share some common quality do not necessarily imply a shared understanding of that quality or of its centrality. To be Black, Catholic, Female, University Educated or Blind identifies significant relationships of a person, but they do not define her, still less imply that she shares the associations and experience that others grouped with her might have. The only way in which we shall know what her experience and associations are and how central they are to her identity is to ask her. We may not presume.

From this perspective I shall address briefly the questions with which I began, not to resolve them but to suggest a line of approach. I asked first who has the right to write about particular groups and the experience of belonging to them. In one sense no one has such a right, because no one can share the understanding and the experience of all persons in the group, nor indeed the experience of any other member. Groups are not homogenous. Nor are the relationships of people in any group confined to the people identified with it. For that reason it is better to conceive of writing as an exchange of gifts than as a conflict between rights. Members of the group have precedence in writing about it because of the networks of relationships that they share. Their words are a gift to those outside the group. Decency demands that those outside return the gift by giving its members precedence in writing about it.

Precedence, certainly, but not exclusivity. Association with members of a group, a similar experience of otherness and discrimination, and close familiarity with the writings, music and other aspect of its culture, may enable an outsider to find words that may be illuminating for people inside the group. We need think only of Alexis De Tocqueville’s writing on American culture.


'Rather than proscribing words we should treasure the discerning and compassionate words that describe a full humanity and the complex building and breaking of good and bad relationships that compose it. An expansive literary canon is invaluable for purifying language and transcending its necessary limitations and deficiencies.'


My second question asked what we should make of words that are pejorative and are perceived as hurtful. This question is often framed as asking whether they should be banned. This may be necessary sometimes, but to narrow our focus to outlawing words can distract from the deeper truth that words draw their power to build and destroy from the relationships that shape us. People make words pejorative through their negative attitudes. Think of how Bethlehem became Bedlam, Magdalene maudlin and spastic a term of abuse. The challenge then is to change attitudes. If we do no more than drive words out of use a legion of demonic words will arise to replace them. The task then that we face is only secondarily to deal with bad words. It is more important to encourage a culture of respect for people that will take mean and pejorative words out of use.

Respect focuses on persons who are at the centre of their myriad relationships. It reflects itself in care when we speak to or about other people, taking care to avoid words that will give offence or hurt. These include words that are used to name the various groups with which they are associated. Respect demands that we do not identify people primarily by any particular relationship to race, religion, gender or whatever, but as persons who enjoy these relationships.

This focus on persons rather than on the groups within which we place them should also command the way in which we speak about and to people in groups identified with a physical deficiency, whether of sight, hearing, mental capacity, mobility or of other capacities. Respect forbids us to assume that they will regard this as a personal deficiency, still less that they will see it as central to their identity, or will resent or accept the name of the group in which they are placed. It recognises that they face the same challenge as all other human beings to live full human lives within the vast but necessarily limited network of relationships that shape their lives. We can know how people respond to the words used to describe them only if we ask them.

My final question was how words and writing considered harmful should be dealt with. This is a complex question. Generally we should commit ourselves to changing attitudes and practices rather than words. But we should also recognise that where groups of people are discriminated against in society, the practices and institutions that enshrine discrimination are often authorised and legitimated by words. For that reason it is proper for some words and publications to be proscribed by law to ensure the common good. They should also be publicly deplored.

Otherwise however, such forms of proscription as censoring books are unhelpful. They distract from respect for persons. They also neglect the complex sets of relationships that shape and narrow our judgments when we act as censors. Rather than proscribing words we should treasure the discerning and compassionate words that describe a full humanity and the complex building and breaking of good and bad relationships that compose it. An expansive literary canon is invaluable for purifying language and transcending its necessary limitations and deficiencies. Hands off Shakespeare!



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: A collage of newspaper headlines (Sean Gladwell / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, language, words, censorship



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Existing comments

Sometimes we have to eat our words. Words can used like artillery but also can soften and heal wounds. From the Psalms in the bible these words: The words of his mouth were softer than butter, having war in his heart; his words were smoother than oil, and yet they be very swords. It's our responsibility to use words as wisely as we are able rather than to concentrate on making words the culprit. And reading Shakespeare's Sonnets is certainly one version of heaven.

Pam | 28 October 2021  

Publicly deplored? Now that's right up my alley. Somewhere in the mix of consideration of words and the potential for insult or offence is the understanding of the degree of malice intended. Case in exemplia: O'Grady's (Nino Cullotta) They're a Weird Mob. A white Australian under an Italian nom de plume writing trivial nuances of an immigrants experiences with cultural differences; a best seller in the 1960s. Contretemps, actor Chris Lilley's "black-face" portrayals of just a few years ago which are now withdrawn from circulation by ABC. Was malice intended in either case? I think not, however it'd be easy to interpret that either or similar may cause anxiety to persons despite lack of intent. The next consideration is if the unintended contravention is just delinquent or negligent; in an entertaining work, the necessity to be edgy, fresh and controversial appeals to the audience but was there a duty of care to examine or refrain from the territory? Andrew says "hands off Shakespeare" but am I permitted to suggest the bard effectively besmirched pacifists that they'd annually "hold their manhoods cheap..." for missing the Crispin's day fun. So who will select what work gets the Fahrenheit 451 treatment? And maybe what is vogue today as entertainment might just be tomorrow's delinquency. Thanks.

ray | 28 October 2021  

Two thousand years ago, crucifixion was a very bad word because it was a very shameful thing. Today, we have to remind people that it was a very bad word because it was a very shameful thing.

roy chen yee | 29 October 2021  

The use of the word "we" by journalists irks me. Most times I find myself muttering: "How dare he/she include me." An example: "We elected Scomo to be our PM." I am infuriated at being pressed into the collective pronoun to express something I didn't do. I voted for a non- Liberal candidate in my electorate. A female ALP candidate won. My experience would have been replicated by millions of voters who voted against Coalition candidates. But all of us have to bear the ignominy of being swept up into the all embracing plural first personal pronoun as if we were responsible for the election of Scomo. It in no way reflects the complexity of the Australian electorate & the Australian electoral system.

Uncle Pat | 05 November 2021  

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