I was at a weekend writers’ retreat recently and overheard a conversation two women were having about a third woman they both knew who, apparently, is a book collector. I say “apparently” because neither of the women actually used the word “collector” to describe the woman they were talking about. What they actually called her was a book whore.
A book whore. Hmmm. As in, one who acquires lots of books, similar to the old-fashioned kind of whore who just used to “acquire” lots of men. The word “whore” is nowadays thrown around as easily as whores of yesteryear used to throw around their favors. Food whore, work whore, travel whore – we’ve heard it all and more. If you do something in excess or extreme you’re a something-or-other whore. But is that OK?
We’re all familiar with the term “slut shaming.” Yet on the flipside, I don’t see accusations of “whore shaming.” On the contrary, whores are to be celebrated! Being a whore is nothing but a good thing. Food whore, for example. “One who lusts after food,” is a definition I saw. Nothing wrong with that, cause who doesn’t like to eat? There are food whore blogs, food whore Pinterest boards, even a food whore website selling aprons and chefs coats. The word “whore” is used with such proliferation that it’s lost its punch. It’s no longer shocking to attach the word “whore” to ourselves to describe something we do to excess. “I’m an exercise whore!” someone could smugly chirp. Yet if that’s the case, then using the word “whore” on its own, with its original meaning, loses its shock as well, thereby making it easier – even acceptable – to ascribe it to anyone you want.
Some might argue that’s a good thing. If overuse of a word makes us numb to it, then the word no longer has the power to hurt. Right? It’s a kind of lingual immunotherapy. Use a word over and over and we build up a tolerance toward it, like getting allergy shots for ragweed. Take swear words, for example. Once upon a time “dang” used to be banned from use in polite company. But tell that to an African American whose had the N word flung at them over and over. I don’t think they’ve become numb to it.
“Slut” hasn’t quite gotten there, either. It’s still, for the most part, a derogatory term, and folks can get outraged by its use. A recent example comes via Bloomsburg University where one of their baseball players called 13-year-old pitching phenom Mo’ne Davis a slut on Twitter and was promptly ejected from the team. For the most part “slut” is used with its original meaning intact, i.e., a woman (never a man, of course) with numerous sexual partners. So why the Bloomsburg U player would say Mo’Ne is a slut defies comprehension except that he obviously wanted to trash her and latched on to a word that still has the ability to insult and hurt.
So it goes with the power of words. As writers, it’s why we love ’em. Words have the ability to transform the reader, taking her to places of unimaginable joy or unbearable pain simply by properly stringing words together in a way that evokes an emotional response. I find myself troubled when people lightly use these potent weapons without any thought about the pain they can cause. Everyone past age six knows the sticks and stones saying is utter nonsense. Words can hurt far deeper and last far longer than any physical discomfort. But they can also make us feel happy or confident or on top of the world, like when a guy calls us pretty. Or smart. Or whatever word you like.
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