“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

It’s a famous line, one of Shakespeare’s most quoted. The sentiment is clear: it doesn’t matter what you call someone, because it doesn’t change who they are. I would argue the opposite, actually, and not out of any disrespect to the Bard.

While a rose will always smell the same no matter what we call it, our perception of the flower changes depending on our interaction with it. Falling into a rose bush is a painful experience, and one that might forever associate the smell and beauty of the rose with pain. For that person, roses aren’t sweet, but bitter.

I’ve thought about this off and on over the years, which started after I made a careless remark. I was driving around with my sister and a cousin who’d just come out of the closet. (Keep in mind, at the time I was in high school during the late 90s in an ultra-conservative community, and he was the first person I knew who was gay. It’s not an excuse; more an explanation.)

That day, driving around, we were all laughing and joking, and without thinking, I referred to someone or something as a “f*ggot.” My cousin looked back at me and said, very gently, “Please don’t use that word.” His comment shamed me, not because I’d been chastised, but because I’d hurt someone I care about by using an offensive term. I never used that word again and have since struck other derogatory terms from my lexicon.

We tend to pick them up without realizing, frequently in childhood when we’re first forming opinions and don’t really know what they mean. And that’s the kicker: It’s the meaning behind words that’s important. The words we use to describe someone reveals how we feel about them. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

Now, when I meet someone for the first time, I generally ask how he prefers to be called, especially if his close friends call him by a nickname. More often than not, I find that a nickname a sibling uses is not okay when someone else says it. It doesn’t matter the reason; by using a name we know someone doesn’t like, it shows disrespect and maybe even disdain for that person.

I, for instance, have been called a nickname over the years that I absolutely hate. It stems from some things that happened when I was really little, but I still don’t like it when people call me that, especially since some family members use it even after decades of me telling them not to. Honestly, it pisses me off because it shows they don’t care enough about my feelings to respect them. It may be a stupid little word, but as I said, it’s the meaning behind it that’s important.

While people can (and often do) go overboard with being politically correct—taking offense where none is intended or making an issue where there really isn’t one—the basis for hyper-awareness of derogatory names is very real. For many, that sensitivity comes from past experiences in the form of mockery and hatred. It’s easy to see why someone doesn’t want to hear a word they associate with painful memories.

At times it can feel like a no-win situation because some people prefer to be called one thing (queer, for example), while others find it completely offensive. Or black. Or hispanic. Or Native American. Or a host of other names that I could well be getting wrong without meaning to. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of and careful about what we call others. Again, we show respect when we don’t use a term that is hurtful and do use one they prefer.

If you’re not sure if the term you’re using is offensive, ask someone who is part of that group or culture. I did that recently when I came across the term QUILTBAG. I had no idea what it meant, first of all. Secondly, I didn’t know if it was positive or negative. So I asked someone I respect if it was appropriate to use when referring to homosexuals, bisexuals, etc. Her response was that yes, it’s starting to be used as an all-inclusive term for the various alternate sexualities* but not everyone is using it yet. So this was a case of yes/no/maybe so, but now that I know about the phrase and the meaning behind it, I use it a) because it is more inclusive and b) because it’s easier to remember.

To sum up this very long post: show respect by using words that don’t harm.


*I hope I said that right. If not, just let me know in the comments.

PS I’d love for there to be a healthy discussion on this in the comments, but remember that I have a big REJECT & BAN button that I’m not afraid to use. So everyone be nice.