Words matter.

As former journalists now working in PR, we know that better than most.

The old adage about sticks and stones may well have had some weight when it was first coined getting on for 200 years ago. But in this brave new world of instant communication it’s simply no longer true that words can never hurt us.

Have a look at new research from Macmillan Cancer Support if you want any proof.

They talked to 2,000 people diagnosed with cancer and asked them just what they thought of the language used to describe the condition.

Descriptions such as “cancer-stricken” and “victim” were among the least-liked terms, whilst likening the diagnosis to a war, battle or fight was also considered unhelpful.

Think about it for a second. If you say someone is fighting or battling a condition it implies it is something they have some control over. Taken at face value, that might sound like a good thing, but the flipside is that it also hints at some form of personal responsibility if they ‘lose’ that same ‘fight’.

And the media’s ongoing compulsion to describe anyone diagnosed with cancer as brave also irritated many who took part in the survey.
As one person put it: Being described as brave and courageous puts an awful lot of pressure on someone who feels anything but that.

So words matter.

And when they get magnified and repeated time and time again through the prism of the media and social networks, they carry consequences that might never have been thought about or intended.

The anger and hostility which typifies much of the Brexit debate – on both sides – shows just how much damage our language can do when it is let off the leash and wielded without thought for its consequences.

If nothing else, the Macmillan survey should make us all take time to pause and reflect about the way we use language each and every day.
Because sticks and stones might well break our bones, but words are just as powerful.

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