Loaded Language

Some words carry extraneous weight and word choices reflect opinions and perspectives beyond surface communications. ‘Undocumented’ and ‘Illegal’ both refer to individuals who’ve overstayed their visa or entered the U.S. without going through customs. Referring to a person as ‘illegal’ makes my skin itch. No person is illegal. Even undocumented sounds judgmental in a country of immigrants.

Some words get hijacked and lose their general, benign, or obvious meaning in a morass of political hyperbole and vitriol. The phrase, ‘family values’ once meant a focus on the family and valuing children, old people, and extended familial ties above other affiliations—like political parties, sports teams, or ambition to succeed in business. A person with strong family values might make a decision to forgo a big job that would uproot their family.

I remember when my dad turned down yet another offer for a bigger, more prestigious job in L.A. He was flying coast-to-coast once a month, as more of the business was moving west. My mom didn’t want us kids to influence him with our horror of picking up in the middle of high school. When Dad made his decision, he said it was because my mother’s career was taking off and he didn’t want to make her start over again in California. I’d say he had strong family values. He valued living near both grandmothers; he valued his daughters’ feelings about moving in the middle of our teens; and he valued his wife’s career as well as his own. Both my parents had great careers that flowed directly from that big family-focused decision.

But ‘family values’ now carries baggage related to traditions & conventions that no longer reflect many real families. How did the obvious meaning get obliterated? How did the phrase become the possession of advocates for private school vouchers and critics of same sex marriage?

The migration from one meaning to something fraught with an entrenched political position would simply be interesting if it weren’t sad. I kind of miss the idea of family values encompassing a grown daughter taking care of her elderly parents, cousins taking the role of siblings, friends supporting one another in difficult times, and everyone celebrating the joys & triumphs of life together.

When I write, freelance and fiction, I’m aware of the way words carry baggage. Sometimes I’m tempted to defy the norm, but communicating with care comes from awareness and the ability to carry the baggage inherent in words.

Words carry more baggage than a jet.


  1. To me, this degradation of language can all be traced back to our acceptance of ‘spin’. Euphemisms have the ability to soften the truth behind layers obfuscation. I hate spin and I hate the way language has been hijacked, but there’s little we can do about it when truth itself has become nothing but a value judgement. 🙁

    • Candy Korman

      Yes SPIN is a big and insidious part of this problem, the shading of words that lessens their strength/truth. There are also words that simply get hijacked by a political point-of-view. It makes writing & speaking with clarity much harder. It also reminds me that when I read something written in a an earlier period of time, the same words might mean different things.

      Beneath it all is an even more frightening trend——the growing idea that words aren’t really important, that truth is never objective and that facts are always malleable. If anything argues for the end of civilization it is the devaluation of WORDS!