Although we may think that words have one (or maybe two) specific, clearly defined meanings, the truth is that words have many meanings.
Different words represent different things to people. The significance or value of certain words varies and changes over time. Some people feel ownership over words. And, many people feel minimized, dismissed, hurt, belittled, and pained by certain words, whether they are used in certain ways or by certain people.
Because words are not just words, but stories.
Whenever a word is used, it no longer remains a simple speech sound — a construction that symbolically represents an object or idea. Whenever a word is used, it assigns meaning. It represents significance. It carries intent. And, most of all, it impacts and affects.
Words can carry whole histories. Entire lifetimes. Legacies of oppression, neglect, and even hatred.
And when certain words are used in certain ways by certain people over time, their meanings can ingrain some deeply held, hard-to-shake ideas, beliefs, and perceptions throughout a culture.
Those words can have a big impact on how someone feels about who they are, as a person.
Once a Silicon Valley social media startup founder, Sasha has become a champion of feminist empowerment methodologies, especially for women over 40, who feel restricted or held back by social norms, cultural pressures, and expectations that are minimizing to a full and whole life experience.
She has appeared on the BBC, Anderson Cooper 360, CNN Headline News, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and NPR’s “Day to Day” and “Talk of the Nation”. Cagen’s essays have appeared in newspapers and magazines including the Village Voice, Utne Reader, and beyond.
Of all the things I appreciate about Sasha, her knack for words stands out.
She invents words, coins catchy phrases, and creates enticing, evocative conversations and reflections around words and their meanings: especially words that have historically been used to minimize, belittle, diminish, and oppress women.
In our interview, I ask Sasha about the words that stigmatize and stereotype women as something “less than” — and how, throughout her life, she’s strived to push back.
From redefining the meaning of certain words and challenging women to reclaim others, Sasha’s work and advocacy centers around helping those who identify as women counteract internalized oppression and find renewed sources of self-knowledge, healing, and empowerment in their lives.
Despite the childhood refrain we would call out across the playground, “Stick and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” the protestation was never true.
Words do hurt.
Research has proven it.
— One 2019 study revealed that Black American women who encountered routine racial micro-aggressions experienced stress symptoms associated with trauma.
— In 2021, researchers showed that healthcare workers who suffer verbal abuse in the workplace had lower levels of empathy, and severe post-traumatic symptoms — symptoms that were more severe than when they experienced physical violence.
— In 2018, researchers concluded that receiving a psychiatric diagnosis — what we might otherwise call an “objective” label of a medical condition! — impacts a young person’s self-concept and social experiences, both in ways that are beneficial and informative, and in ways that are adverse and isolating.
Words, in short, really do matter.
Perhaps one of the “new stories” of our time should be practicing increased awareness, curiosity, and tolerance around what the many words of our languages mean… not only to us but to others. Especially for those who have been historically marginalized, overlooked, and underrepresented in our society.
Ready to have a listen and decide for yourself?