The Word “Great” Means The Opposite Now

The language we use matters.

Jessica Wildfire

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Photo by Colin + Meg on Unsplash

Americans love the word “great.”

We had a great war, a great depression, another great war, a great recession, and most recently a great resignation. One of the most famous books in American literature is called The Great Gatsby, and it’s about a bunch of horrible liars. That was the whole point. Now we’re having a great reset. It’s a nice way of saying we’ll never own anything again, and we’ll never be able to retire, no matter how hard we work.

Yeah, that sure sounds great.

It’s funny how we don’t use words like horrible, terrible, tragic, catastrophic, or devastating. We prefer to call them great or unprecedented, even though these things are happening over and over, with increasing predictability, after decades of warnings and predictions.

The word great feels intentional here, because it implies these things happened on a scale beyond our control, and there was nothing we could’ve done to prevent it from happening.

It suggests inevitability. It evokes the idea of gods and floods, and factors that we simply have no power over.

Except we do.

Language makes our reality.

A hundred years ago, a Yale linguist named Edward Sapir helped found the discipline of linguistics.

He figured out part of our problem.

Sapir came up with the radical idea that language doesn’t just convey our thoughts and perceptions of reality.

It shapes them.

A chemical engineer named Benjamin Lee Whorf joined Sapir as a student. Sapir mentored him as they studied rare languages together. More and more, they realized the intimate connection between a culture’s language and its worldview. It explained why some languages have unique words for emotions and experiences that don’t exist in others.

It’s now known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

The words we use have a huge impact on our habits and decisions. Language doesn’t just reflect our feelings.

Words influence us, subtly.

We sterilize death and violence.

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