Words Matter

Words are not just words.

Robyn Chittister January 22, 2015
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“Words have weight, something once said cannot be unsaid. Meaning is like a stone dropped into a pool; the ripples will spread and you cannot know what back they wash against.”
Philippa Gregory, The Constant Princess

They were just two letters.


Two letters that generated hundreds of comments in 24 hours on one Facebook group.

One commentor said that her child’s birthmother expressed, “Don’t flush me away!” when she saw that abbreviation for the first time.

One birthmother in the group commented that she found it rude. Others commented that they didn’t care one way or the other. A vocal few vociferously stated that if the term was offensive to even one birthmother, it should not be used.

“You know what I mean!” several others commented. “This is ridiculous!” “Don’t we have more important things to fight about?” others asked.

But what could be more important than words?

I’m a writer. I write technical documentation for a living. I learned how to write using precise language to ensure that my words could be accurately translated into seven or more languages. I learned that one word is not necessarily equal to another.

We all learned the rhyme in grade school, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

Yet, words do hurt. Any child who is teased will tell you that. Many adults will too. Words are powerful. The pen is mightier than the sword, right?

So, why do we insist that words are “just words?”

A lot of effort has been put into promoting “positive adoption language” within the adoption community. Members of said community are asked to correct others whenever possible, in an effort to give the best possible impression of adoption. What is positive adoption language (PAL)?

* Instead of “real parents” you say, “birth parents,” “first parents,” or adoptive parents.” All parents are real, after all.
* Instead of “natural parents” you say “birth parents” or “first parents.” All parents are natural, after all. Although, in most states, the legal term for “birth parents” is “natural parents.” Go figure.
* Instead of “is adopted” you say “was adopted.” You may find that some adoptees disagree with this tense change.
* Instead of “give up for adoption” or “put up for adoption” you say “placed for adoption.”

I think you get the idea.

Going further, we insist on using words that are respectful of everyone in the community. That is where the dreaded BM debate comes in. Many people don’t even think about it; they simply abbreviate “birth mother” as “BM.” Unfortunately, “BM” is the abbreviation for “bowel movement”. Does everyone reading an adoption forum know what the author means when she writes “BM”? Probably. Does that change the fact that “BM” is offensive to many birth parents, as well as to others in the adoption community? It does not. Type the extra two letters, we say – bmom. It’s not that hard. Yet, we’re the ones who are “getting their panties in a twist” when we ask this kindness. “I’m not going to change the way I do things”, they say.

If you can’t open your mind enough to change one word – not even one word, two letters – how are you going to open your mind to the entire world of adoption? If it really is “just one word”, why not make the change? Why go out of your way to be offensive to an entire group of people? If we can’t even agree on the words we use to describe ourselves and one another, how are we supposed to agree about anything else?

Words have weight. Words matter. Use them wisely.

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Robyn Chittister

Robyn is a full-time writer and mom through private, domestic, open, transracial adoption. She resides in New Hampshire with her family of two adults, two children, and a fluctuating number of animals. She is seriously passionate about adoption and tries to use her words wisely--both here and at her personal blog, Holding to the Ground.

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