Words matter. Choose carefully
I should have kept scrolling, but on that day, I couldn’t. The tweet I couldn’t move past said something along the lines of, there’s no such thing as “authentic” food, and so food writers should stop using that word. I get it. I’m a food writer; language matters. But is it really that simple?
I’m not naming the tweeter, because it’s a sentiment I’ve seen tossed around more than once. And I understand where it comes from: people proclaiming a restaurant or food truck has the most authentic Thai food or tacos, despite not being of Thai or Mexican heritage, maybe never having been to the country in question. It’s been co-opted as a way for outsiders to make qualitative assessments of another culture’s food and — at its laziest — shorthand for cheap and maybe spicy.
Outside of food writing, authentic is marketing jargon. Brands work with influencers or do pop-ups where they can create “authentic connections to consumers.” I’m authentically unsure how to gauge this usage. And sure, a part of me would be happy to never see it again.
But as an editor, I work with food writers from countries and cultures that were colonized for centuries. When they use the word authentic, it’s in the spirit of reclamation. These are people who are seeking out the food of their ancestors and exploring the forces that have shaped their cuisines over time. They’re using authentic in the dictionary way, to mean true and genuine.
We can treat words with nuance and critical thought.
It strikes me as wildly unfair that they should be denied this usage because it’s been adulterated, or diluted, in such a highly visible way. I’m open to the ways language shifts and how words’ definitions change, but I’m troubled when the people who have rendered a word jargon or meaningless are the same ones declaring the word should be banned.
Authentic is just one example. Another is “woke.” Woke has been Black slang for decades, if not longer. In a Guardian piece, Malaika Jabali defines it as “another way to say 'conscious': having awareness of our conditions and history in an America that lulls us with myths of a post-racial, colorblind, meritocratic society.” It became, at a rapid clip, a shorthand for people with left-leaning politics to signal that they see racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of bigotry as systemic issues rather than personal belief systems.
Just as quickly, it was turned into an invective against those on the left to dismiss that viewpoint, a way to group a complex series of arguments under a trendy word. For those who want to keep the word “gay” out of schools and AP African American History classes out of high schools, “woke” signifies a campaign, a conspiracy, a threat. In that same Guardian article, Rebecca Solnit puts it succinctly: “Woke was kidnapped and has died.” It’s part of a long tradition of mainstream white culture co-opting Black creation, a topic others have written about far more eloquently than I can.
So, let’s talk about another: grooming. This one maintains its use as something we do to ourselves and our pets — cleaning, trimming, a general spiffening up. It became a term for predators manipulating children or teenagers. Now, it’s been weaponized to signal perversion and manipulation any time children are exposed to any identity, orientation or relationship other than cishetero monogamy, and it’s waved around as an excuse to do everything from banning books to terrorizing drag queens.
If we ban them all, won’t we just find new words to mismanage and then toss out?
Of course, it isn’t just politics, or only right-wingers. Diversity and inclusion have both become buzzwords, as have curated, disrupt, harm reduction, clean and elevated (to mean fancy). Where I struggle is that all of these, in their earlier iterations, are perfectly good words. If we ban them all, won’t we just find new words to mismanage and then toss out?
Instead, we can treat words with nuance and critical thought. It shouldn’t be such a big ask.
This is two-fold: when we, as writers, choose to use a word that has its roots in slang or has developed a secondary meaning, we need to ask ourselves why we’re using that word. For whom are we issuing a dog whistle? How does the tone of the piece change if we use a synonym? In other words, let’s use our slang and our buzzwords in moderation — and with intention — so that we don’t wear them out quite so quickly. And when we reach for words that might not be “ours,” it’s worth a moment of pause as well.
We can also apply this critical lens as readers. Do we make political assumptions based on words like “diversity”? What if it’s used to apply to, say, plants? Do we assume the writer is some sort of social justice warrior botanist?
Words carry a lot of power as shorthand for politics, social status or culture, and that can be a great thing. In a constantly online culture, though, meaning can become corrupted as quickly as it can be transmitted. And for those of us who work in words all day long, the stakes can feel achingly low around using a word like authentic, while making a proclamation that you’re banning it feels like a real stance.
But if we look a little more closely at whom we’re taking those words from, I think most will find it worthwhile to adapt and infuse nuance into their thinking — and reach for the right word, not the easy one.