The simple answer to the question in my title is: Because they’re not my words. Every word I know has been used by other people in other times and places for other purposes. This may seem obvious, but in the middle of talking or writing, I can easily forget. I can also forget the implications of this reality: When I borrow a word (or phrase or slogan or quote), some of its history and context rubs off on me.
If I use a term that’s come to be associated with Marxism, for example, even if I’m not a Marxist, and even if I don’t mean what Marxists mean by that term, at least some readers are likely to think I’m a Marxist and react to me as such. I may call myself a feminist, and may sincerely believe in the political, economic, and social equality of women. But if I speak to women in ways that many of them associate with sexist attitudes and behavior, I shouldn’t be surprised if they consider me sexist, whatever my intentions.
Because we often use words unconsciously, and because I tend to think of the words I write or utter as my own, I can be blindsided when people criticize or challenge the associations my words evoke rather than what I consider my “obvious” intention. I can react to such challenges as an unfair attack or an attempt to twist my meaning.
So far as I can tell, though, words always work, in part, by association and always have. Were it not for this quality, then poetry, humor, and irony in language (just for starters) would disappear.
When my associations with a word line up with those of my audience, we take that common meaning for granted as obvious. Only when the speaker/writer and the reader/listener have different associations does the ambiguity of language rise to the surface. But that doesn’t mean that these various associations aren’t always present beneath the surface of my communication.
As a practical, everyday example, let’s talk about “milk.”
I’m allergic to cow milk. If I drank it, my mouth and nasal passages would flood with mucus, my eyes would water and swell along with my face, my throat would begin to close, and the air sacs in my lungs would constrict and fill with mucus as well. Because of this, I have spent my life drinking soy milk. “Milk” then is a complicated term for me, with at least two very different sets of associations.
But my wife, Dutch, has no such allergy. She has, in fact, a deep love for milk, cheese, and all things dairy. It has been her misfortune to have to complicate her associations around milk. She has come to understand that if I say, “Could you get me some milk when you go to store?” I mean the stuff from soy beans, not the stuff from cows. We both know the common usage of that term, but we also understand that milk can mean different things to different people.
And we have bequeathed these more complicated associations to our children. My daughter, not yet three, has learned to be more specific when she asks for something to drink, specifying “Dada milk” or “Mama milk.” She attaches no value judgments to these labels; they have simply become the vocabulary of her experience. And from this, by the time she reaches adulthood, she might understand not only milk but living with allergies in a way that some of her contemporaries will not.
I draw two lessons from my example. First, experiences, both in language and in life in general, have formed the foundation for my understanding of, and associations with a word. Even when I later learn other meanings of a word or phrase, part of me remains loyal to my original understanding. Second, the wider the experiential difference between me and my audience, the greater the chance that our associations and our meanings will differ.
So here’s the kicker: If I say that I want others to understand me, if communicating across difference really matters, I have to anticipate the associations others might have with my words and I have to take those associations into account. I have to consider more than what a word means to me; I have to consider what it might mean to others.
It’s become fashionable for some to call this “political correctness,” to claim that words are simple tools with simple, common, unambiguous meanings. I call it something else: a sincere attempt to be understood by people who aren’t like me. And I think it’s an essential attitude in a world in which many of us differ from one another.