By Danni Moss
Copyright protected, all rights reserved
Sticks and stones
May break my bones,
But words could even kill me…
What’s in a name? That nursery rhyme (original version) says “…names can never hurt me…” But I think names can do a world of damage.
While it seems fundamentally obvious, the thing about names is that a name tells who you are. A name is your identity. Whether it is the name your parents gave you or whether it is a “modifier” screamed at you in anger or calmly hurled at you in a quiet diatribe, a name is an attempt to identify who you are.
I used the word “modifier” in its English grammar meaning. A modifier is a word that describes or quantifies another word. It is a name that identifies another word specifically — for instance, the red car, the windy weather, the unsubmissive wife, the demon child son. A modifier ascribes value to another word.
When a name is used to describe a person it strikes at that person’s very center of being. This is why name-calling is more powerful than just words. When a husband or father (or mother/wife) calls their spouse or child names they are ascribing value to that person – they are ascribing a lesser value to that person. It doesn’t matter if you attempt to say the names don’t hurt, they do – especially when they are spoken by someone closest to you, who is supposed to know you best, is supposed to love and protect you, and is supposed to be “one” with you (as your spouse) or is supposed to be your primary influence (as a parent).
It also doesn’t matter how the name-calling is phrased. If an abuser says, in screaming rage, “you are acting like a demon child” – it is no different than saying “you are a demon child” because the spirit, the rage, the violence behind it gives it the same intention. Splitting hairs by saying “you are acting like” does not give someone a pass on the intention.
Words can also “call names” through strong implication without saying the actual name. When an abuser has a pattern of the calm diatribes, carefully and constantly describing, in detail, why you are a failure, wrong, have poor judgment, etc. he is describing you – your worth, value, acceptability, etc.
For instance, Gary frequently launched into long diatribes about all manner of things about me. One was about me liking white rice with butter/salt/pepper as a side dish with a meal. He wondered how I could possibly eat white rice and described in detail all the reasons why it is worthless, bad for you, tastes bad, etc., etc. He did this everytime rice came into his sphere of reference — could be in a restaurant, could be if I fixed rice, if he fixed rice, if someone else fixed rice, if the rice came up in a casual conversation with strangers — he launched into the “how can my wife/you like white rice because…” Yes, he did this — about me — to other people in casual conversation if rice was mentioned. What he was communicating was that I was so stupid I couldn’t make a rational decision about my taste for rice. I ended up being unable to eat rice for several years and I still struggle with it. The strong negative emotional connection to rice is very powerful. There were dozens of things like this that warranted long diatribes toward or about me. Water temperature in the shower, the direction of washing dishes (left to right sinks vs right to left), theological or political sub-points, favorite colors, styles of clothes, preferred recreation, types of books I liked to read, types of TV programs I enjoyed — the list is practically endless. There was always something to rant about – literally daily.
The reason these take a toll is because they “call names” even non-specifically. These rants quantified who I was as stupid, illogical, unreasonable, unsubmissive, rebellious, un-spiritual, non-Christian (literally), etc., etc. They communicated that I was not worth respect, and they communicated that he did not respect me because I was not worthy of respect. While he said he respected me if he was directly asked, his constant way of life said otherwise.
Name-calling, in any form that describes value, is powerful because it assaults who the person is at the most fundamental level. When the person calling names is in a position of authority or in the position of protector/provider his words hold that much more power.