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How a single word can change a life

Cornwall

When I was 13½, my life at school became almost unbearable. To explain why, I need to go back to the beginning.

I was born on the outskirts of a tiny fishing village in Cornwall, less than half an hour from the most south-westerly tip of the UK. I grew up in a nearby town, right up until I had to move across the country at the age of 11. Only two and half years later, I went back to Cornwall, to live in a different town about twenty minutes’ drive away from where I lived previously. It was there that school changed into daily torture. Why?

I had become an emmet.

Even though I had been born there, and spent the first eleven years of my life in the county, I had become an outsider, branded by that simple, awful word. Emmets are people who move to Cornwall from other places, shallow creatures without a deep connection to the granite beneath the soil nor the brutal struggle for life embedded in its history. Emmet is also a dialect word for an ant. Hmmm…

Outside of Cornwall the word loses its strength, but for me, already disadvantaged by being an awkward 13-year-old girl who liked science fiction more than pop music, it was the nail in the social coffin.

Who could have thought that only two syllables could have been so damaging? I’m not bitter (not very, anyway) as it triggered a fascination with the way people talk, in particular words that are exclusive to certain groups of people. I’ve carried that interest through a degree in psychology and into a career as an author.

A brief side-step into social psychology

Before I delve deeper into this, I want to bring in a little social psychology: Social Identity Theory, and more specifically the juicy topic of inter-group hostility. The key idea is that our self-perception is in part determined by our perception of the group we believe ourselves to be in. That group could be ‘student’ or ‘Brit’ or ‘girl’ or ‘Trekkie’ – any kind of group ranging from one with a few members, to one that includes thousands or even millions. Once identification with a group has been established, the person has a tendency to attribute their ‘in-group’ with positive attributes and the ‘out-group’ with negative ones. This can be very powerful, driving aggression, prejudice, and all manner of unpleasant behaviours.

Social Identity Theory asserts that a major component of self-esteem is derived from the positive image of the groups we consider ourselves to be part of, and by emphasizing the negative qualities of the ‘out-group’, we make our ‘in-group’ even more desirable, and thereby feel better about ourselves.

How words define group membership

I believe that the emmet phase of my life illustrates this theory beautifully. By calling me that word, the students forcibly ejected me from their social in-group, using only two syllables and one sneer. Quite efficient, don’t you think?

Using that example as a focus, I may be giving you the impression that I carry those memories like a festering wound. I can only assure you that I don’t. It’s simply a neat example, and one that I draw upon for my own writing.

Here’s another instance, one which has brought people to the brink of fisticuffs: ‘Trekkie’ vs ‘Trekker’. In my youth, I was a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and yes, I did the whole convention thing with great gusto. One evening chatting with a fellow fan in the bar stays with me. I made a comment about how “we Trekkies are seen by others” and his face changed completely. “I am a Trekker!” he pouted, and was deeply offended. I was told later that ‘Trekkers’ – at least those who take offence at being called anything else – like to distinguish themselves from crazy people who wear pointy ears and gush about the show as if it’s real. Trekkies can be just as disparaging about Trekkers in return, I should add, but I’m not going to get sucked in, it’s just too frightening.

But is this actually useful?

As an author, it’s critical to pay attention to not only the way people speak, as in mannerisms, pacing, and tone, but also the specific language they use. When editing dialogue, I think about the social groups that character identifies with, as people reveal who they identify with and secretly reject, just by what they choose to say.

So there you go; teenage misery to a love of linguistic idiosyncrasies and dialogue in a few steps. Ah, the things I could tell you about the word ‘grockle’… but that’s another story.

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