I am a fan of vocabulary. I adore the 1936 unabridged dictionary my grandmother passed down to me.
Although I admit I enjoy a 24-karat word on occasion*, the value of vocabulary goes beyond spelling bees and trivia games. A good vocabulary can give us confidence, so we are more likely to speak up, to join in the conversation, to reach out.
Conversely, our resolve can fizzle when we can’t decide which words to use. We may get stuck when…
- we are confused about the most respectful language for a disability;
- we don’t know the best words to use for old age;
- we are worried about whether we’re supposed to say mother, step-mother, foster-mother, birth-mother, or other mother, and whether everyone will understand or agree on the same choice;
- we wonder whether a child who has lost one parent is called an orphan;
- we fear that words about dying or death will seem callous;
- we can’t think of an acceptable way to refer to an addiction or imprisonment; or
- we aren’t sure it’s polite to mention that someone is having a financial crisis.
The saddest part of vocabulary confusion:
We may reason that it’s better to pretend we didn’t see the struggling person than to address them or their difficulties in the wrong way.
For purposes of this blog, there are two vocabulary decisions that can help pull our feet out of muddled conversations and head us toward our goals.
First, what exactly are we doing?
Are we reaching out? Expressing compassion? Pitching in? Helping? A previous blog entry parsed through the idea that, even though our ears perk up at the idea of helping, it can be more productive to look at our efforts as blessing others without the need to ensure we will help their situation.
Second, who is struggling?
Do we need to discuss each person’s situation, one-by-one? How do we talk about blessings that might apply to anyone? Is there a way to plan strategies in advance, without even knowing whom we might bless?
Some words are too specific and limited. Others are too general, forcing us to trudge through vagaries about those who are going through hard times, or tempting us to avoid their difficulties. How can we comfortably refer to any of the people we may choose to bless one day? Do we use…
(a) Loved ones? Or, family and friends?
These are the words that ordinarily come to mind when we think about sharing our company, giving service, or offering gifts. However, these limit our circle of blessing to those right next to us.
- What if we want to bless those we haven’t even met, let alone loved—collecting winter coats for schools or baking brownies for funerals?
- At other times, we might bless a neighbor or a workmate whom we don’t know well.
- There are also times we may choose to bless someone who is a challenge, a particularly difficult person whom we would not call a loved one or even a friend.
- A few of us might even be motivated to champion causes affecting whole classes of people; for example, a local apartment building fire could spur action that will bless far beyond our own family and friends.
(b) The needy?
When we reach beyond our own circles, we often start to label those we don’t know, defining them as a part of some group — a group that is “other, ” that is different from us.
- We slip into detached, impersonal euphemisms about “the poor” or “the needy” or “the suffering.”
- We leave out caregivers, family members, and worried kids we may want to bless, since they aren’t the ones in obvious need.
(c) Your someone!
Instead of the narrow circle of “loved ones” or impersonal labels like “the needy,” and instead of new, fancy vocabulary words that no one will understand, here is something to try:
- Someone — simply an unspecified person; no limits, no categories, just someone.
- Your someone — Your can also be very nonspecific, as in “your average kid,” but more commonly your brings things closer to home, makes them a little more personal; if it’s yours, then it relates to you, yourself. It’s not just any someone we’re talking about here, it’s your someone.
Your someone is at the same time personal and respectful, bringing to mind people of all sorts who might walk through our lives and benefit from a particular blessing.
* Here’s a 24-karat word for vocab trivia fans: cymotrichous was the National Spelling Bee winning word in 2011; can you guess its meaning? (The answer is here, at Merriam-Webster.com)
Blog #5, Comments: Have you tried using “My Someone” — even just in your own mind — when thinking about reaching out to others? Does it feel personal and at the same time respectful?