Karen Osborne

These days, you might ask your friends to “chill,” or post a “selfie” for Facebook. In the 1970s, you would have asked your friend “can you dig it?” or to “book it” from a boring party. In the 1920s, cool things were the “cat’s pajamas” and people got the “heebie-jeebies” at Halloween.

The language we use influences how we see the world. We create the language as well as its meaning. We have control. We make it matter. That’s why language is so cool: We have the opportunity to create worlds with the words we use, no matter who we are or where we live.

Language gives us a bright, shiny window into how people live and think. The northern Inuit and Yupik of Alaska have many more words and ways to describe snow than I do in Florida because they need it. I don’t.

I call rice “rice.” The Japanese call it “kome,” “meshi,” “gohan” and more, referencing how it’s cooked and prepared. This tells us that rice is an important dish in their cuisine.


Finally, one Amazonian language, Piraha, has no words for “all,” “every” or “most.” Since they are hunter-gatherers who subsist on what they find in the jungle and what they can hunt, they rarely need to count that high in order to live well.

What does the language you use say about you, your friends, the culture you’re creating?

Do you swear all the time? Swear words, with their origins of violence, disrespect and pain, can’t help but inject our daily situations with negativity, hateful feelings and thoughts. Why not use kind words instead?

What about calling people pejorative words or ethnic slurs? Even if it’s acceptable to call our close friends these things, why would we want to associate ourselves with that kind of inequality and long-seeded hurt? Try real-life compliments instead.

What about “I can’t” language? I’ve been guilty of this, too. You might say, “I can’t play volleyball,” or “I can’t learn math,” or “I’m not pretty enough to be in the fashion show.”

Why cancel something before you even try it? Why create a world where you’re trapped by what you can’t do instead of a world where the sky is the limit? Instead of saying you can’t, try switching your negative language. Say, “I can learn to play volleyball,” for example, or “I am learning math.”

By adding this little piece of encouragement to your life, you’ll find volleyball and math might get a little easier.

Lastly, how much do things “suck” in your life? The more you say your parents suck, or this class sucks, or that test sucks, the more it will tend to be true. Just change that word for a positive one and you’ll find your outlook becoming sunnier.

I’m not saying it’ll be perfect, but it may get a lot better.

It can be hard to switch from negative language to positive language, but it’s worth it. Start today. When you hear yourself saying “don’t,” “can’t” or “won’t,” turn it into “can” and “will.” It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.