Words, everyday spoken words, are a manifestation of society’s general ways and values.
I recently observed a family argument during a weekend in the cosmopolitan British countryside, that certified this thesis. It all began as my French mother decided to complain about how nowadays, in France, a woman is officially addressed ‘Madame’ even if she is a minor or unmarried, as opposed than ‘Mademoiselle’.
She was quickly reproached by my British father, who viewed this change as a progress towards gender equality. I could already see that my mother, who had clearly not considered it that way, understood what was being said by her ‘opponent’ in discussion.
However, having already pushed her anti-‘Madame’ argument – based on some sentimental and personal notion - too far to turn back, my mother continued arguing. Or rather, defending herself. In fact, her consequent profoundly strong point was that she “likes it”, ‘it’ being ‘Mademoiselle’.
What she obviously hadn’t contemplated was that being discriminated because you are unmarried may cause offence to some. What difference should it make whether a woman is married or not? It shouldn’t. And doesn’t! We certainly do not make a difference between a married and unmarried man.
That is precisely why the French government voted a law replacing “Mademoiselle” by the somewhat neutral ‘Madame’ in all administrative documents, back in 2012. Besides, the use of ‘Madame’ is merely a legal requirement on an official scale. One will not get arrested for calling a minor “Mademoiselle”. My mother - who had now realised her initial point was ill-advised – was still reluctant to accept her defeat out of mere stubbornness, or perhaps passion.
The heated discussion turned into a row.
My father, astounded that my mother would not give in to something so prominently true, pulled out a rather sad but fitting example from his sleeve. The “N” word. His point still being that language manifests an evolution in society moral ideas, he began recounting the days he spent as a young boy around the very table we were sitting round.
My father addressed himself painfully and shamefully to my grandfather, explaining that as young child in the 70s he would hear the more than derogatory “N” word being bounced off different parties of each corner of the table, with utter ease.
He however recalls feeling the spitefulness involved at the use of that word. So much so, that when leaving his country home as a young adult, having never really met a black person before – was scared of black people.
Luckily for him, he grew up in the London of the 80s, in a time of monumental cultural change, when pop songs and television told you it didn’t have to be that way, and that there many other ways. My grandfather felt the need to intervene by announcing something utterly ridiculous: “It wasn’t racist!”.
My father, who had by then decided to leave, presumably tired by the wilful stupidity expressed by the opposition, illustrated a powerful point for me: language is power.