No matter how much we may wish otherwise, language is an imprecise thing. Words are mere approximations of the concepts humans want to convey. And a single word can have multiple meanings, which can be further tainted by nuance and bias.
These are not the only problems with using words to express ideas. Another problem is that some people take words literally, while others take words as symbolic or representative of an idea. All of this hinders communication.
Still, it has become a trend in modern American society to “take ownership” of words as if such an act somehow changes their meaning. One school of thought believes it does. They believe that you can force meaning on a word by “owning” it or changing how it is used.
Although their intentions are probably good, their thinking is flawed. This is because changing the words does not change the meaning of a thing. A concept is what it is irrespective of how it is expressed.
A situation of this sort came up on my blog recently. One of my regular readers made a point of discouraging the use of the word “accident” when describing negative interactions between cars and bicycles.
In general, I agree with this reader’s idea that when a car strikes a bicycle, it is not necessarily an “accident” in the sense of being accidental (unintentional or unblameworthy). Often there is liability on the part of the driver. And sometimes the incident results from a deliberate act of ill will.
While in principle it sounds good to ban the use of the word “accident,” doing so is superficial and it is little more than wishful thinking to believe that this will change anything. It’s much like what William Shakespeare wrote in his play Romeo and Juliet: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
This is a true statement. No matter what name we give a rose, the nature of the thing is unchanged. The rose would look the same, smell the same and function the same. Words don’t change things.
And yet, as I said earlier, our current culture promotes the idea of focusing on words to effect change. To be blunt: this will never work.
Even if we could persuade everyone in America (and ideally around the world) to agree to stop using the word “accident” to describe what has happened when a car strikes a bicycle, it would not change the sequence of events or how people perceive them.
For instance, many drivers do not want to be held accountable for hitting a bicycle. They see bicycles as a nuisance on the roads and don’t want to be vigilant about a cyclist’s safety.
Since drivers are the majority, they do not want to accommodate a minority. They don’t want to make an effort to look for bikes before turning or to give them the right of way. So, they don’t pay attention to what they’re doing.
Often this inattention leads to a collision between a car and a bicycle. Some collisions are straight forward, as when a car rear-ends a bike or broadsides a bike upon entering a main road. Yet other times the interaction is so complex it’s unclear who did what, who is to blame and for how much. In all of these scenarios, someone is at fault, either the driver or the cyclist. The collision, as an end result, is not accidental.
Other times, an “accident” really is accidental. Humans make mistakes. Humans are flawed creatures whose judgment can be off, even when they are not distracted or impaired.
Does this mean that a crash caused by a mistake should be forgiven and the guilty party let off the hook unpunished? No, of course not. But there are degrees of culpability. And in civilized societies we recognize such distinctions and attempt to dole out punishments that fit the crime.
There are other pitfalls with respect to words. Here in the U.S., our laws state that an accused party is innocent until proven guilty. We believe in due process. No one is supposed to be convicted by public opinion. And when one is convicted mob style and is later found innocent, a defamation of character lawsuit can ensue.
This is the dilemma many writers face. Regardless of whether a writer believes that a driver is guilty of causing a cyclist’s death or not, he or she cannot indiscriminately use words like “killing” or “wreck” because both words have a negative connotation.
It is possible to say that a driver killed a cyclist because this can be interpreted in a neutral way. But to refer to the crash as a “killing” connotes a deliberate action on the part of the one who caused the death.
While it may seem unimportant, it can become a huge problem for a writer because lawyers make their living by nitpicking over details and are more likely to quibble over the intent of a word when a client wants to sue someone for libel.
Bloggers, whose work appears on the Internet, where literally anyone in the world can read it, must be as careful as possible about what they say and how they say it. Using strong words to describe a car versus bicycle encounter to avoid the word “accident” can result in a lawsuit.
A driver who may feel that he did not intentionally kill a cyclist might take offense at being called a “killer” or someone who caused a wreck. Both of these words connote violence and many people would take offense at the suggestion that their actions were violent.
From their perspective, the crash may have been unavoidable. Whether it was unavoidable or not isn’t really important. What is important is that at the time a “traffic accident” is reported, a formal investigation has not taken place.
No facts point to the driver’s guilt. Therefore, implying that his actions were violent or deliberate is libelous. And using these libelous words doesn’t change anything because a thing is what it is. The facts should speak for themselves, no matter what words we use to describe them.
Rather than focusing on words and how they are used, we should focus on changing ideas, ideas about cyclists’ rights, ideas about sharing the road, and ideas about the irresponsibility involved in driving while distracted.
Ideas are what really count. Let’s focus on changing how people think, not what they say; if we succeed, instead of changing language, perhaps we can effect real and lasting change.