Sticks and Stones. And words too.

The book was due to come out on December 10th and as such I was busy doing my due diligence trying to get people to review it and hopefully recommend it. I had about 2 weeks to go before it was published, which as it turns out means I had about a week before it was printed – finally going from an idea in my head to a real live thing. So I was pretty alarmed when someone got back to me saying there were ‘negative connotations’ around the phrase “The Black Dog”, which I’d used to describe depression. She was good enough to point me to her source.

As I got in touch with the publishers to put a halt on the book and scrambled to think of a new name it made me think about our use of language. I’d heard the argument before that in English black tends to have negative associations connected to it – for instance blackmail, black magic, black heart whereas white is associated with innocence and purity e.g. white knight, white magic. I thought it was interesting but hadn’t given it much thought before. I had never really considered (outside of the obvious use of insults) how language could be used en masse to hurt others. I think it would be easy to dismiss this sort of thing as over the top – of course ‘black dog’ is just a metaphor for depression with no hidden meaning, but perhaps it does feed into a greater narrative and that can have consequences.

Linguistic relativity is the idea that language affects the way someone sees the world and there is research showing that this can be the case when it comes to things like spatial recognition and colour perception. One study in children showed if we don’t have the words to describe something it affects our ability to remember it. Another shows that in languages that use gender to describe objects (e.g. in French ‘le chat’ is the cat (masculine) and ‘la vache’ is the cow (feminine)) they perceive those things to be more masculine or feminine – so to put it crudely, cats will be thought of as more manly than cows.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that our language completely dicates the way we think and how we see the world – if it did, learning a new language would also involve learning an entirely new way of perceiving the world. But it does suggest that the way we speak and the words we tend to choose can have an impact on the way we view the world and it is a reflection of our culture. There are studies showing that the language we use can cue different attitudes and could be associated with implicit bias, where we don’t even know we’re being biased. This means that the words we use could have real power in shaping how we think about ourselves and others.

Although it was a stressful couple of days – obviously the idea of being associated with anything that would make people feel excluded and uncomfortable didn’t sit well with me at all – I’m actually happy that it happened because I think in some ways the new name is better (I would say that though, wouldn’t I? Thanks cognitive dissonance). I like that “The Dog That Came to Stay” is ambiguous and is able to imply that for many depression can be a temporary visitor whilst for others it becomes a feature of their life and both are perfectly normal. So hopefully in this case the power of words will be used for something positive.

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