How language can influence violence (Memorial Day Reflections)

Here we are again – 150 years of celebrating Memorial Day. Well, “celebrating” might not be the best modifier, but here we are again just the same.


Americans alone, have been involved in conflict throughout their history. Since the country’s birth in 1776, there has not been a consecutive decade without conflict involving American soldiers. In fact, the only 5-year consecutive peaceful run was from 1935 – 1940, during the Great Depression. Wars and conflicts aside, it would do us all some good to reflect on another type of violence plaguing the United States this particular Memorial Day – school violence. We need to reflect on the level of violence that continues to infiltrate and threaten the sanctuary of our schools.

How language can influence violence-Number of school

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Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me – or can they?

The inspirational words of Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela (just to name a few of the greats), have elevated the world to new heights, and their words continue to motivate generations around the world to make a difference for the better.

There is strong scientific evidence that supports the belief that hypnosis and the power of suggestion can have an impact on human behavior. Hypnosis has been used for decades as a therapy to break destructive habits and addictions, and to empower the lives of those suffering from the effects of abuse.

However, the world also has a rich history of employing words and phrases in an effort to control children, oppress women and minorities, wipe out civilizations, and manipulate societies. We need look no further than the propaganda of Adolf Hitler which worked to spread the ideals of racism, antisemitism, and anti-Bolshevism, to understand the dark side of language.

Words have been used throughout the ages to convince citizens of doing the unthinkable, to intentionally secure political and economic domination, and to gain national and international power. The United States is not immune to the effects of these tactics with its history of hate speech, propaganda, and symbolic violence. Our history and culture has been plagued with violent undertones that have not just been tolerated, but have in some part, been encouraged. And language – yes, language – plays a key role in the history and culture of American violence.

The freedom of speech, protected in the United States under the First Amendment, is undeniably a national treasure and a source of American pride. However, when those who practice this freedom do so irresponsibly and irrespective of possible consequences, what do we stand to lose?

Can words really hurt?

The current president of the United States is on record as having used violent rhetoric on a number of occasions during his campaign:

 “I could stand in the middle of fifth avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, ok?”

 “I’d like to punch him in the face, I tell ya.”

 “Knock the crap out of them.”

 “I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself or if other people will.”

 “Maybe he should have been roughed up…”

 “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you?”

 “Try not to hurt him. If you do, I’ll defend you in court, don’t worry about it.”

 “In the good old days this doesn’t happen because they used to treat them very, very rough.”

 “Part of the problem, and part of the reason it takes so long, is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore, right?

Let’s not forget the “lock her up” chants which led to marches with posters of Mrs. Clinton depicted in handcuffs and black and white prisoner garb. At several of these rallies, the crowd used pepper-spray against its perceived enemies. Crowd brawls, punching, kicking, shoving, and choking ensued. It is now believed that there has not been this level – or frequency –  of violence at United States presidential campaigns since 1968.

Maybe words can hurt, after all…

Here is a list of some of the everyday language used in the United States, and around the English-speaking world, along with their original meanings:

Saying Original Meaning
Pay through the nose 9th Century –A poll tax placed on the Irish. Those who refused to pay were threatened to have their noses slit from the tip to the eyebrow
Raked over the coals Middle Ages –People accused of witchcraft were dragged over the coals of a fire
Diehard 1700s –Referred to those who struggled the longest when they were hanged
Deadline American Civil War –a line that was drawn to stop prisoners from escaping; if they crossed the line, they’d be shot in the head

Indeed, humankind has had a long history of violence, and our language has always come along for the ride. These sayings may be considered weak perhaps in today’s standards, and maybe we really don’t consider the actual connotation of these sayings anymore. After all, they have completely lost their original meaning, but they are nonetheless, mirrors into our shared violent past.

Language is a powerful tool, and the language services industry bears a key responsibility

In the language services industry, we talk a lot about effective messaging. We are actively involved in translation, transcreation, localization, technical writing, interpreting, subtitling and dubbing, machine translation, cultural consulting, and so much more. We pride ourselves on sharing the latest advancements in the field, and we compete for center stage to be the voice of the industry. But maybe, just maybe, we can take this day to reflect on how powerful our industry really is. Maybe we should take some time to consider the enormous responsibility we bear each time we speak on a podium and each time we send our message out to the universe.

The English-speaking world represents around 45 percent of online active users. Speakers of 10 languages other than English represent an additional 45 percent of the total online audience.

How alanguage can influence violence-Number of school-Number of languages online

It stands to reason then, that when English language products and services are localized into these languages, those products and services have the potential to reach 90 percent of online users. Yes, language is powerful. And yes, we bear a critical responsibility to ensure that we offer the highest of standards at all times. What is it we want to say? What message do we wish to convey?

On this Memorial Day, let us as an industry, set a clear example. Let us reflect on the power of the spoken and written word. And let us remember to always use the freedom of speech in a responsible manner. We do this always, but let’s do this today, not only out of respect for the men and women we have lost in countless battles, but in honor of the children and school personnel we have lost in senseless school violence.

Nimdzi Insights wishes everyone a peaceful, reflective Memorial Day.


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