When Writers Fail To Understand How Words Work

When Writers Fail To Understand How Words Work

It starts with Elizabeth Bear1 using the word (or tag) ‘deathmarch’ to describe difficulties in moving forward on wordcount with a novel. Apparently the word in the original post here has been removed due to concerns raised in this comment here:

The word I want to point out is “deathmarching”. I’m well aware that some people may use this to refer to a hard, exhausting, sometimes perilous struggle, but there’s history attached to that word, and thus it’s not one that ought to be used lightly.

Read the whole comment, as it makes some good points. And then be prepared to stab yourself in the eyes after reading Bear’s response:

I have very mixed emotions about political correctness in language: I believe that it’s our responsibility to be aware of the language we use, but I also have a sense that mythologizing language only gives it power.

I’m going to just say two things about this and the subsequent conversation in Bear’s journal and elsewhere.

  1. Every time I see someone (usually a white person) using the term ‘political correctness’ in this way it makes me want to get on a rocketship and leave this planet behind forever. It’s not all that shocking for me to see Bear waving around PC in a manner that would make Glen Beck proud given the racial politics she’d displayed lo these many years. But still, lady, what the hell? You’re a goddamn writer yet you wave off the very real consequences of using loaded words casually by complaining about political correctness? How much fail can possibly be contained in one person?
  2. I really don’t think that it should be up to people in positions of privilege to decide when it’s okay to make words mundane and erase their history of blood. I think it should be up to the people with the history and the people the word affects. Hint: that ain’t you, eBear.

And to be honest, it’s not me, either. It’s folks like this:

You see, in this story, by subsuming such outdated usages of “death march” into the mantle of the banal and the mundane — why, “imeldific” was such a success — we have embarked on the positive process of washing the blood out of our history. We have smoothed the jagged edges of our own psyches by repeatedly enduring the battering of the hardness and pain inherent in the stereotyping and prejudice we encounter. Saying and saying and saying, again and again: war, war, indio, savage, ladrones, blood, our little brown brethren, war, master, master, yes — until we accept the reality of it, and the repetition renders the reality common, banal, mundane, free of pain.

Why, look at us. We can even assume respectability now. Tayong hindi lumilingon sa pinanggalingan.

ephemere (Trigger warning for descriptions of violence.)

And while we’re at it:

The background behind “deathmarch” is real. There is nothing mythic about respecting the experiences of those who have been systematically dehumanized and slaughtered or the people who belong to one or more cultures scarred by those experiences.


And then, AND THEN someone unearthed this blog post from 2006 which is actually, seriously called The Bataan Death-March of Merchandising. Because, you know, dealing with the Comicon dealer’s room is totally like unto a deathmarch.

Which all leads me to agree heartily with megwrites: fuck you, Elizabeth Bear, fuck you so, so, so, MUCH.

But, here’s the thing. As this post at Fiction Theory points out, this problem is not limited to Bear, it is vast. And the way to combat it, other than calling her and any other writer out on this stuff, is to do our best as writers or just as people not to contribute to it. You should go read.


  1. Yeah, I know, pretty much any sentence that begins this way can’t end well []

30 thoughts on “When Writers Fail To Understand How Words Work

  1. One of the linked conversations mentions that there are people who think it’s okay to say “Soup Nazi” and similar “[stuff] Nazi” terms derived from it. Is there really anyone past elementary school age who thinks the characters on Seinfeld were worthy of emulation? They’re not exactly depicted as good people.

  2. I find the idea that only certain words matter completely puzzling.

    If non-spanish-derived words for horse colours matter enough to brainstorm in public because readers of the book might be ever so slightly annoyed (at which point does a term become assimilated into English?) then making throwaway remarks that needlessly offend people in real life ought to matter, too.

  3. How “Fail” became a noun: http://www.slate.com/id/2202262/pagenum/all/

    W.E.B. Du Bois was using “folks” and “folk” interchangeably to mean “people” way back in 1903, in a book more famous than anything than Dubya will ever write. And it’s common parlance for every generation in my part of the country.

  4. How can I back that up in response thread?

    “How much fail can one human have in them,” to cite your own writing. What does that mean?

    “Epic fail,” for another, that is everywhere

    And folks isn’t a direct synonym for people, there is an informal component to the usage and is very suggestive beyond simply “people” plural.

    how about politicians using it all the time ever since Dubya used it to appear folksy?

    It’s really not my responsibility to correct your ignorance.

    1. How do you back it up in a response thread? By explaining what you mean, as you did here, and giving examples. If you feel it’s not your responsibility to correct my ignorance, then you should just leave this blog. Because if you can’t back up your statements with explanation or facts, then there is no point to you.

      As Mary Dell points out below, we folks here on the Internet often use fail as a noun. You may not agree with this usage, but using fail as a noun is not in any way equivalent to using ‘death march’ in a flippant manner.

      Also, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, folk is derived from a Germanic noun that does indeed mean people or a people. And, like Mary, it’s been common to say folk and mean people in my part of the world for as long as I’ve been alive and way before GWB. Folk and Folksy aren’t exactly the same thing, either.

      And again, even if I was misusing the word folk in some minor way, is that in any way equivalent to the death march issues? Why no, it’s not.

      I am pretty sure, based on your weak argument, that my credibility remains intact. Unless you want to now quibble with my usage of the word ‘the’.

    2. And folks isn’t a direct synonym for people

      And yet, dictionaries give it as such. Who do I believe? Lexicographers!

      1. The sheer ubiquity of their misuse is probably as bad as what you castigate Elizabeth Bear for.

        1. How could one misuse the word “folks”? It is a synonym for “people”. Are you arguing that the writers of the articles to which ephemere objected are not humans?

          1. I’ve always liked using folks to refer to people, because it feels more warm and personal. This is the first time I’ve seen somebody dinged for using it. (Not sure how folks ISN’T a direct synonym for people. Every example I tried thinking of worked exactly that way.)

  5. E. Bear consistently shows her ass. I don’t know why anyone is surprised by this. She does not give a fuck. People need to stop expecting her to start giving a fuck. Even worse, the more people call her out on her shit, the more she believes she is persecuted, that she’s the one who is evolved and beyond the difficult cultural histories she so gleefully enjoys trampling upon. There’s no rationalizing with someone like that.

  6. Thank you for posting this. I confess, I intellectually knew the load of history the word carries, but I hadn’t *thought* about it and its uglier implications.

  7. Things like the Bataan Death March and the Trail of Tears are important history. No one should make light of the suffering of others, and that suffering should be remembered properly so that we will be less inclined to do such things again. Words are important. I’d never make light of The Holocaust, either. Using such a phrase is not a joke or a weak analogy. It’s a reference to when real people died for horrible reasons.

  8. I know this has been painful. I am grateful to those people who, in the midst of their pain, posted and educated. Thank you.

  9. Of course, “political correctness” is the same kind of inappropriate metaphor–it implies that being called out on your insensitivity/lack of awareness/plain flat-out prejudice is just like running afoul of the Stalin regime and facing the hideous consequences thereof.

    1. Interestingly enough, on another website I’ve seen a marketing department being compared to Gulag. I pointed out that it’s not the most appropriate comparison, and was treated to a link to Wikipedia which listed various uses of ‘Gulag’. OP also said that it was perfectly OK because it was meant as a joke.

      1. I agree that that’s also spectacularly inappropriate, and I believe I saw the same thing but now can’t remember where it was.

  10. Bear didn’t just change the text in the one post. If her tags list is anything to go by, she removed the term from a great many other places she’d used it.

    Which is exactly what people wanted.

    I understand why you’d want to criticize her doing so without any further apology, but I think you should give her credit for that much. Instead, your reference to changing the wording makes it sound like you think she’s hiding the evidence of her crimes.

  11. I keep thinking back to the list of words that I’ve slowly discarded from my vocabulary OR that I only use when it’s appropriate and not hyperbolic. And I can’t help thinking that the mundanity of them, the fact that I didn’t think about how hurtful they were to other people, but it was “just another word” to me was why it was hurtful. Some of these words I used without knowing their history, and it didn’t matter what my intent was because the people that DID know the history probably thought I was affirming that bigotry.

    I’m not sure whether EBear really meant what she said about making words less hurtful, but turning it into something mundane seems to be the wrong way to go about doing it, since the mundanity is what allows the privileged to distance themselves from the hurt.

    Gail: I too have been involved in projects that used “death march” similarly and I didn’t think anything of it. But now that the context has been pointed out to me, I feel it would be crass and hurtful of me to keep on using it. Also, I don’t know that I would use history of use as an example. I work in the video game industry and a lot of things are changing because as the work force becomes more dynamic, people are standing up for things they shouldn’t have to put up with. There’s a fair amount of sexist artifacts in the industry as well, but I doubt you’d put up the argument that we should just let it go because it’s been in widespread use.

  12. I’ve been in software companies where shipping product was known as a “death march”. It’s a widely-used colloquial metaphor and calling Elizabeth Bear out for it personally really is piling on.

    Just because she fucked up in racefail doesn’t mean she should be pilloried (<– metaphor, sorry if your ancestors were) for this one.

    1. 1. Just because other people do it doesn’t make it right.

      2. How about you read all the links, especially the last one, before you comment on the issue? kthxbye.

    2. Are you on her payroll or something? I’ve also worked at software companies where this was a widely used term. That doesn’t make it okay, and Bear is a writer who was called out on using that very term four years ago in a different blog post–and still doesn’t give a shit.

    3. I’ve been in projects that have been understaffed, behind schedule, under-specified, new requirements a week from launch, and all those other things that caused me and my coworkers to inappropriately use that phrase to describe the project.

      However, when we call a broken project a “death march” instead of what it really is (a dysfunctional project,) not only are we becoming part of a machine erasing someone else’s blood and history (and really, read the http://ephemere.dreamwidth.org/33539.html post to understand how my country has erased the Filipino experience of the Japanese invasion and occupation,) we’re giving up on trying to fix what’s wrong with the project, and merely slogging through to “just ship the damnable thing.” That’s no way to run a development organization.

      I’m happy for the correction. Not only does it keep me from stomping on other people’s history, it puts me in a stance to treat a broken project as a broken project, which is a lot less intimidating than trying to stop something we’re inappropriately naming after a war crime.

      1. This is very well put. In some ways, that kind of hyperbole (“I’m being raped by my ISP!”) does us two disservices–it both minimizes the seriousness of rape, death march, Holocaust, etc., and also puts a barrier of exaggeration between us and the issue we need to be dealing with. Saying “this is a death march” rhetorically makes it, as you say, a war crime that the participants have no choice about. Saying “this is a poorly conceived project which is making inappropriate and unrealistic demands on its participants” is actually more conducive to working out the problems and taking focused complaints to management. Hyperbole can cast out reality, just as sentimentality can cast out actual love and affection.

  13. Seriously? Isn’t ebear in fact hiding from the evidence? Now she has these comments pointing out her fail, but without any evidence of how deeply she failed. All she had to do was apologize…without explaining all about how she didn’t mean to do it. And “people”, as you say, just wanted her to simply acknowledge her fail and try to do better..not go back and retroactively remove her casual use of words like “death march.”

    And I have to say that yes, “death march” is a widely used colloquial term…that doesn’t make it right.

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