What’s in a name? By a linguist’s definition, absolutely everything we understand about our world. Language is perhaps one of the greatest and most powerful instruments in human existence. It is our main channel of communication, our pathway to information and the very essence of our thoughts. It is how we experience reality, how we access new portals of knowledge, how we are educated and how we teach others about our histories and beliefs. Everything from systematic scientific research, convulated philosophical theories, profound artistic works to simple greetings on the street are expressed and documented through language. Without it, quite frankly, we would be nothing.
Can you tell I have a huge interest in and passion for language? Perhaps I have done all my life. In school, I was that person always correcting others’ grammar on MSN. Then, at college, I would argue that there is no such thing as ‘incorrect’ grammar if the intended meaning is still discernible. In university, I studied linguistics and developed an appreciation for just how complex, intricate, instrumental and all-governing language is within society. And now as a graduate, I love to explore the role language plays in our wellbeing, from public health communication and legislation, which influence our actions, to the private dialogues we engage in both internally and externally, shaping our thoughts and relationships.
You might think that language should be the least of our concerns when it comes to health. With disordered eating habits more prevalent than ever to parallel the continued rise in cases of obesity and type-2 diabetes, false health experts spreading fear and misinformation around nutrition, disease prevention and cures, disability access and support still far from optimally available to so many and a scary number of industries creating and thriving off the public’s ill health, insecurity and confusion in order to maximise revenue, a few harmless words are hardly of importance. Except they are. Because what all these problems have in common is a fundamentally flawed system of discourse that fosters bad health attitudes and habits.
First, however, I want to start by back-tracking for a moment because, although I discuss language and health on practically a daily basis, it’s hard to really grasp why it is so important to consider without a little bit of understanding about how powerful language is. This post is the first in a new series on the blog called ‘Consider Your Words.’ I’ll be chatting about some of the fascinating issues surrounding the language of health, kicking it all off with a brief (as brief as I can be anyway) introduction to some important avenues of language that make it so relevant to the way we practise healthy living.
What exactly is language? Some would say it’s how we communicate. If we ask a question, make a statement or issue a command, we do so with language. But then the outcome of communication has a much more concrete impact on our lives. With a question, we gain new insights. With a statement, we make a judgement about the world; and with a command we have the ability to control and transform the actions of others, thus changing the state of reality. In that sense, is language really just communication or is it also transformation? A process of altering the world, one slight utterance at a time.
Then there are further meanings conveyed via communication than just the surface meaning and use of words. We distinguish between communities and construct social orders through how we speak to one another. On a macro level, this plays out in audible linguistic differences. We know where someone grew up or was raised based on the language they speak, the accent they have or perhaps the kind of grammar or lexis they use. The difference can be as obvious as using the word ‘zucchini’ instead of ‘courgette’ or as nuanced as writing ‘realize’ instead of ‘realise,’ both conveying the same idea and yet communicating wholly different things.
Going further, on a micro-level, we divulge our interests, careers or friendship groups through the finer details of how we communicate. Ever been to the dentist and heard them listing random numbers and letters when checking your teeth, or visited the hospital and heard the doctors and nurses use unfamiliar terms when describing details of your injuries to one another? How about an example closer to home. Take ‘HIIT’ or the ever-popular ‘zoats?’ These playful acronyms and word blends are more than just a way to make speech convenient. They showcase our knowledge and give us a grand opportunity to perform our persona as health enthusiasts. Those who also know what they mean share in this persona, forging a strange bond by being part of ‘the informed.’
Communication isn’t just a matter of sharing a message. It’s a matter of expressing identity. Things that assimilate who we are. Private discourses of language are a commitment to one’s position in society, whilst making very clear that those who do not understand are not part of the club. Communication establishes community and has the capacity to grant or deny individuals access to certain roles and networks. In coming weeks, I will explore further how, through this, the language of health has created a sense of elitism and inaccessibility to certain groups and classes of people.
We also need to consider the essence of words. Do they describe an objective reality and discuss the way the world fundamentally is without variation or disparity? Or are they loaded with opinions and understandings that differ between all of us? This is a pretty difficult question to dismantle because, of course, if we didn’t share similar conceptualisations of the world, we all could be talking about totally different things and never really know what we each refer to. But this isn’t the case. We all know what we mean when we use the word ‘chair.’ We all understand its purpose is to be sat on. And yet, because we all have different experiences of the world and different memories, we each have our own idea of what a word entails.
When I think of a chair, the first thing that pops into my head is a wooden object with four legs, a hard base and a paneled back, fixed and immovable. But someone else might think of a cushioned leather desk chair, with wheels and a lever to shift height and recline. Neither idea is wrong although which is most representative of ‘chair’ is certainly up for discussion.
Discrepancy in definitions are more evident than ever when we look at health and terms like ‘detox,’ ‘real’ or ‘natural,’ for how we understand these words really depends on the context in which they are used and our previous encounters with them. Science knows these terms very differently from the general public. In science, ‘detoxing’ is the function of the liver, ‘real’ is anything that is of physical substance and ‘natural,’ any element of the universe, man made or not it seems. Yet, we all know these terms can and commonly do take on a very different meaning.
Because of the status endowed to the scientific community by qualifications, does this mean their definitions are more correct even if they aren’t the most prevalent in society? Or does the scientific community have a responsibility to adopt dominant definitions to make their knowledge more accessible and better understood by the general public? It’s where a large amount of the current tensions within the industry arise as scientific authorities are really fighting back against ‘false’ health information. But what is ‘false’ in an industry where we all seem to be encouraged to create our our own definitions and understandings of living a healthy lifestyle. How can we say an ideal is wrong if concepts can differ so vastly? It’s clear that standardisation is important, but how best they are achieved is yet to be determined.
Defining Our Thoughts
I realise that I’ve already offloaded a hefty amount of information and I imagine you’re feeling a little exhausted and overwhelmed by it all. There’s one final thing I want to touch upon before I let you digest everything I’ve discussed in this introduction to the language and health. That is language and thought and it is why I believe the language of health is of the utmost importance in moving towards better practices.
As we’ve seen, language has the capacity to define us and our identities as well as objects and reality. But this holds so much gravity in our health because of one question. Is language a representation of our thoughts or are our thoughts controlled by our language? When we say, for example, ‘clean eating,’ does it embed the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food in our minds, or is this simply a representation of an existing toxic relationship that long precedes this current trendy label for a diet.
There is a large body of evidence that would suggest that our thoughts very much can be influenced by the language we use. For instance, you might be familiar with Loftus and Palmer’s psychological study on eye-witness testimonies which found that a mere shift in a single word used when questioning witnesses of an accident amounted to a significant difference in the accuracy of their accounts. The words chosen were entirely synonymous and yet their meanings were not the same. There was no surface difference in the question asked in this study, only a difference in lexical perception. Again, a matter of previous understandings, experience and context which should always be taken into account.
Bringing this back to the relevance of health, let’s consider the following two sentences. ‘That meal was so high in calories.’ ‘That meal was so high in energy.’ Both state the same thing. Both convey the same surface message. And yet one can make us feel infinitely worse about ourselves than the other purely because of the connotations linked to it. The term ‘calories’ is so commonly responsible for poor body image and attributes a largely negative association with food that our behaviour can be controlled simply by choosing this word over the other. Many of us are likely to favour foods stated as ‘low calorie,’ eating in a largely restrictive and nutritionally deprived way. But if ‘low energy’ were used in its place, I bet our attitude and behaviour around these same foods would be completely different.
This really is just the bare bones of how language has an incredible part to play in our health and it’s a topic I feel is still largely unexplored. Sure, many people are talking about the issues of ‘clean eating’ and ‘real food’ lately, but the discussion has been incredibly reductionist and simplified that it just doesn’t do justice language’s colossal implications within our thoughts and behaviours. There’s a lot of ground to cover and, as this is something I feel so very strongly about, I hope you’re as interested and excited as I am to learn more in coming weeks.