A small group of people gathered in the library auditorium on Feb. 9 for a seminar called “Hurtful Words & Racial Slurs.” The presentation was organized by the office of college diversity in order to discuss the use of offensive words.

Nathan Ward, the director of the office, moderated the discussion. The room was quiet until Ward asked the participants to move into small groups and begin an activity, at which point conversation erupted. Ward stressed that there was to be an atmosphere of respect, establishing the room as a space for education and not the negativity that the words convey in their normal use.

The air immediately filled with vulgar words as small groups of students drafted lists of offensive words. Even though the air was contaminated by some of the most distasteful and disgusting words in the English language, the words lost a lot of their power without malice behind them. Some people could not bring themselves to write the words down on paper – one participant censored her list with asterisks.

When the participants organized themselves into a large circle and the room quieted down, some people found it hard to say these words aloud. The discussion of some words created a palpable air of discomfort, even though they were not being used in an offensive way. The vulgar implications of some words seemed to immediately suck the air from the room.

But Ward emphasized that it was important to use the words in order to get to the root of the problem.

The next activity was to break down each word listed in order to discern how it came into being, why it was originally used, and why it continues to be used today. Several people knew a great deal about the origins of slurs and curses, and were more than happy to help educate their peers. The group learned that many words actually came from neutral beginnings and were corrupted to hurt or demean people. This stripped the words down to ignorant misconceptions, making participants reconsider casual swearing.

Ward showed the participants several inspiring video clips. The first was a brief monologue by Maya Angelou on the pervasive strength that words have, and their ability to not only contaminate the air around us but to ingrain themselves into our being. The second video continued in a similar vein, though it focused solely on the N-word. A young African-American boy, who could not have been more than 10-years-old, gave an impressively articulated speech condemning the word and citing prominent black Americans who have shattered its negative meaning.

The discussion was so rich that the length of the seminar surpassed the moderator’s expectations. Participants discussed how some words had lost their “bite” from heavy use, and how their meanings have actually shifted slightly. Some words found renewed distaste when the group deconstructed them and revealed their horrifically offensive nature.

“We have a choice to pay attention to the language we use – to perpetuate it, or to not use it,” Ward said. The seminar enabled people to see the power and history of certain words, which were often backed by years of intense hatred and prejudice. When one thoughtfully considers the background of a particular word, it becomes more than just a series of letters that come together to make a sound. Words have both history and intention, and can seriously tear through anything at which they are directed.