Words that bite my brain


I can’t stand these words.

Words that cause a range of cognitive pain for me.

At minimum, there’s a sense of them pulling me diagonally. I may understand the meaning, but they still strike me wrong. If I do understand them, they cost cognitive effort to figure out. Not the kind of effort that anyone should be expected to put into understanding things that are difficult for them. That kind of effort is effort I’ve already spent understanding regular words. This effort is beyond that and is destructive to my ability to do other things I have to do. Have to as in have to, not as in “feel like doing”.

Then the worst of these words. There is little to no understanding here. It feels like a miniature explosion in my head every time I read them. I can’t find another way to put it. And the pain they cause, although not physical, is quite intense and feels like a cognitive version of nerve pain. Anyone who’s had serious nerve pain will know how bad that is.

Most of the words are ones I rarely if ever use. But some of these are words I can bring myself to use, some of the time. Some are even words I’ve coined. That doesn’t seem to matter though, they still hurt my brain. So don’t assume that my using or even coining a word means it being easy for me or expecting everyone to like or use the word.

I will say that these are words commonly used in communities that call themselves “social justice” related. The reason I put “social justice” in quotes is that, as a word in the midrange of mental pain levels, I can’t quite bring myself to write it down as if I were using it. That would make it look like I know what it meant. (Not that that always stops me from using a word, but it often does.)

There’s a reason, though, that I’ve abandoned the idea of writing most of these words down in public, in this post.

Because when I’ve brought it up in the past, I’ve gotten a variety of pretty offensive responses.

People patronize me.

They treat me like not knowing these words is a sign of some kind of privilege.

They openly brag about their extensive knowledge of the subjects the words refer to.

They assume because I can’t handle or don’t understand or outright get pissed at the existence of a certain word, then I can’t possibly know anything about the subject the word is supposed to refer to.

They try to patiently teach me the meaning of the word, ignoring me whenever I try to explain that this doesn’t work with this kind of words.

They suggest that I don’t like the words because I don’t experience the kind of oppression that the words were built to describe.

They sigh and roll their eyes and get scornful. Because I’m obviously just some noob who wants everything explained to me (possibly because of an overdeveloped sense of entitlement).

Often their reaction is more than one of those things combined. “Well I for one totally know what the word means. I’m an expert in that area. I guess you are just too privileged to understand. But here, let me try to explain anyway. (As if I should have to.)”

I know it’s not about that, though, because often I know what the word is trying to refer to. I just can’t connect that meaning to the word without a lot of effort and pain. And the connection is never really complete.

Let me just say straight out that I would rather deal with one person who gets words “wrong” (and may even use lots of words deemed offensive due to not being able to keep track of that kind of thing) and may sound “clueless” to the social intricacies of communities or the meaning of words, but has good ethics and a grounded sense of reality; rather than a hundred people repeating all the right words with only a superficial take on the issues at hand and a tendency to want to blend in more than to solve real problems.

I only decided to write this post after seeing other people mentioning their own problems with this kind of language. Not identical problems, but clearly I’m not the only one who finds these words difficult. I’ve seen suggestions that these kind of words can shut people out of the discussion, even if that wasn’t the intent. I have to agree. I also saw someone who had an extreme emotional reaction to a similar set of words, and they wondered if their brain was responding to something real… like something about how people turn words into some kind of rigid ideology, and I have to wonder about that too.

[Note: I may be unable to quickly process comments starting very soon and then for a couple weeks minimum, so please don’t be alarmed if your comments don’t show for awhile.]

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

22 responses »

  1. I often get a sense that a lot of people (myself included) spend a lot of time playing games with certain words in order to get an ego boost. This is very bad.

  2. One thing I’ve noticed is that when you say you don’t understand what a word means then I almost never actually understand it either. My experience with language is pretty different than yours so it’s not the same issue, but it makes me stop myself and think about what’s going on. I have a tendency to use some words, mostly correctly, without consciously knowing what they mean. Then there are other words I don’t use, but I get used to the “shape” of when I’m reading them. But I don’t think seeing the shape is the same as actually understanding them; it just means understanding how they’re used and sometimes I can’t even do that.

    I wanted to mention some examples to explain what I meant, but I don’t want to short circuit your brain or the brain of anyone who reacts similarly to you. Saying that as someone who felt like part of his brain died for the last few days.

    “Let me just say straight out that I would rather deal with one person who gets words “wrong” (and may even use lots of words deemed offensive due to not being able to keep track of that kind of thing) and may sound “clueless” to the social intricacies of communities or the meaning of words, but has good ethics and a grounded sense of reality; rather than a hundred people repeating all the right words with only a superficial take on the issues at hand and a tendency to want to blend in more than to solve real problems.”

    yes yes yes aaghahjgh

    I’ve noticed with the internet “social justice” way of approaching things is just very… something or other. The approach is obviously second nature to some people, some of them people who deserve a lot of respect. It’s new to me, though, so I know there are very very different ways of approaching many of the same problems. Sometimes using one of the other approaches would then draw attention to things the internet approach (the one I’ve seen online, not that it’s only real online) wouldn’t even notice.

    I do think the way we use language is important. But people insisting that everyone use the right words exactly the same, that everyone think about things a certain way (this means lots of what you call widgets), etc makes me exceedingly uncomfortable, even when I’m capable of doing it. I think it’s because of the exclusionary nature of it, which you’ve pointed out.

    I think people sometimes forget that language isn’t a “thing” as much as it’s an abstract way conveying information. It’s not an end in itself, or it shouldn’t be.

  3. Interesting. I never found myself allergic to s_____ j______. I’ll consider not using the term, although it’s not currently part of my “front burner” vocabulary, anyway. What grinds my gears is “social entrepreneurship” and the not-entirely-unrelated “volunteerism.”

  4. I have heard words that “rub me the wrong way” which may mean something similar to finding it painful to hear or read. One such phrase is “self-absorbed”. I saw someone apply it repeatedly to anyone she thought was (in her eyes) not attending enough family gatherings. It seemed a value judgment and at the same time she seemed proud to use the word as if it proved she actually knew what it meant. A person could be doing something important in the lives of their immediate family and not attend a distant event and she would hang this label on them.

    It is not a word that comes up often in conversation thank goodness. Mom

  5. Mom:  I think your experiences with self-absorption are slightly different, more like a word with emotional associations that are unpleasant.  I can totally picture the smug tone and everything though, having met people who became happier when judging others by really weird standards. Fortunately I learned “self-absorption” as a thing to look out for in myself, not as a thing one person uses judgmentally about another, so it doesn’t have unpleasant associations. 

    I think part of the “cognitive pain” comes from a total lack of fit between a word or idea and my brain. Like someone I know and respect came up with the word monotropism to describe some characteristic she thinks autistic people’s minds have. And just OWWWWWWW. That word won’t even compute. Meanwhile another person I know came up with the word monochannel for something similar. And that word doesn’t bug me half as much. 

    I had a really funny conversation with one of the inventors of “monotropism”, where I was mentioning the word’s effect on my brain. And then she said she had a tendency to use words that were “abstruse”. And then I had to ask what that meant.

    (It doesn’t cause the mini-explosion that “monotropism” does, but I can never wrap my head around “abstruse” either, and it’s mildly unpleasant.)

    That’s a situation where this happens for me and there’s no emotional association at all other than the emotions attached to “oh CRAP my brain hurts!!!”  Dinah (the person who came up with the word, or one of the people anyway) has never been anything but nice to me and has bent over backwards trying to explain the word to me and understand why my brain rejects it so fiercely.  But nothing has changed for all that effort. 

  6. I understand what you are meaning now. I have a similar thing where something someone is saying seems to be literally tying my brain in knots. For me tho it could be because they are describing things with words and no pictures. I need pictures.

    I wonder if the word mono channel is easier for you becuase it has a spatial component since spatial thinking is how you think. If so then maybe the words monotropism and polytropism could be contrasted in a spatial way by saying that monotropism means a single tunnel of attention and polytopism means multiple tunnels of attention. An example would be your father as you know always had one tunnel for attention which worked well for him in his job in research. My job required that I be able to handle many tunnels for attention at once. If this works for you then perhaps absturse could be likewise defined as knowledge that is multi-layered and partly hidden behind barriers thus hard to understand.

  7. Unfortunately, “attention tunnel” doesn’t help much. If it did, a lot of conversations with Dinah could have been avoided entirely.

    About spatial thinking… while I have some really good spatial skills in certain areas, and some of my thoughts seem to work like movement through space (sort of a kinesthetic version of spatial instead of a visual version)… I’m still not sure how much of what I’ve written about spatial thinking was actual insight into my brain, and how much was “Gee, this concept is better than having a choice between visual and verbal, so I’d better run with it,” with little understanding of some of the things I was putting into it.

    So I’m not sure that a translation into spatial terms would help me as much as a translation into visual terms would help you. (And the thinking I identify the closest with these days, doesn’t really have translations for ideas, not even “autism” let alone “monotropism”.)

    I think I’m just doomed to not deal well with certain words. :-) Even when I do find real translations that work, the words themselves still remain brain-explodey.

    I also wonder if there’s something to it beyond just not understanding the words or having more difficulty understanding certain kinds of words. It could be that I’m reacting just as much to the way people attach systems of ideas to the words. Monotropism is certainly connected to a system of ideas, and beyond just being a system of ideas, it’s possibly a certain kind of system of ideas that seriously clashes with my brain.

  8. … well I’m not getting this “tropism” stuff at all. There are actually entire people that I never know what they’re talking about like that and confuses me so much when everyone else can understand them.

    Sort of related idea, though- since we can’t just go around banning words, what can people actually do about this? Not having the reactions you talked about in the original post is a good start, but I’m becoming increasingly aware of “social just” areas on the internet that are explicitly exclusionary. As in, “if you can’t use/understand these words then you aren’t allowed to be a part of this area because you’re not ready yet and would be ruining our community.”

    Sometimes there are other things, too. I saw one area where they said no one was allowed to go off topic ever. I have trouble keeping track of what’s actually on topic so I would probably never try to take part in a community like that even if I had something important to say. I know it can be confusing for other people if I go off topic and I really don’t like that, but I think there are other ways to deal with that besides censoring me or telling me to go away.

  9. Phototropism I understand. I grew near Kansas, and sunflowers really do follow the sun. Are mono tropists following a one? It isn’t clear.
    I used to love science because so many words were based on Latin. They were clear. Precise. Predictable.

    You are a wordsmith. More than once I have read things you write, and your message comes out so clearly that there is no shade of meaning.

  10. Sorry, off topic (but words involved ): i & a friend have translated ” If you can do X, Why Can’t you do Y” into french :

    It’s actually more remake than a straight translation.

    And yes, wordsmith, that’s the word.

  11. I have to admit there are words that give me headaches (but nothing that makes my head explode), even words I have made attempts to incorporate and use (kyriarchy is a big one). Whenever I actually want to talk about these things I find that I never internalized or learned what they meant and have to reconstruct it all over again. You linked the one time I was able to put it into a context I could relate to and continue to relate to afterward without having to know what “kyriarchy” is supposed to mean in October (if I recall correctly? I think it’s on page 2 or 3 of your posts right now – the post about empathy).

    I have to admit monotropism is kind of slippery.

    I also think that the social justice thing is often too focused on making sure everyone is using precisely correct language and people who are not malicious at all get bullied and piled on because they used a word that was deemed wrong and problematic.I’ve also found a lot of people aren’t particularly open to debate as to whether a word is problematic or not, even if they are debating a word that affects them directly or indirectly. I also think there’s a lot of energy invested in the belief that if only we can get everyone to say the right things all the time that this is a worthy cause, but it really strikes me as a fairly superficial cause. Someone on tumblr or twitter using a slur isn’t the source of anyone’s problems.

  12. I think I understand what you mean. I have this reaction to whistling. Back in grade school, when a kid whistled around me, I’d scream at them to stop…whether they were aware of my presence or not. Of course, the entire school soon got wind of this and the kids would whistle just to annoy me. The teachers though I was angry because I was jealous of my classmates’ ability (I don’t know how to whistle myself). It wasn’t until years later that I was able to articulate why the sound hurts my ears.

  13. This is another thing that it’s good to know other people do.

    I also have problems with the “s____ j_____” term, though not at a full-on bitey level. That’s one which, for me, is more of a combo of slipperiness, not necessarily the best associations, and possibly bad interaction with my synaesthesia. Some words and phrases I just can’t stand–some make me queasy or give me a headache–just because of the synaesthesia. But, yeah, that is not the same as the brain-bitey “divide by zero error” type ones which just do not seem compatible with my brain at all. And no matter how many times I run across them, I react that way, and have also repeatedly looked some up without being able to remember or probably make good sense of it in the first place. It’s like a blind spot in a mirror or something. And running into certain words can really send me for a loop, making it hard to do other language-based stuff for a while.

    Actually, as similar as the effect is to what certain musical sequences will do to me (short of, or before, triggering what I’m still pretty sure are seizures), now I’m wondering if it might have something to do with what is looking increasingly like my “weird” temporal lobe activity in general. They seem to do a lot of very relevant language-related stuff. Just speculation, trying to make sense of things. :)

    Let me just say straight out that I would rather deal with one person who gets words “wrong” (and may even use lots of words deemed offensive due to not being able to keep track of that kind of thing) and may sound “clueless” to the social intricacies of communities or the meaning of words, but has good ethics and a grounded sense of reality; rather than a hundred people repeating all the right words with only a superficial take on the issues at hand and a tendency to want to blend in more than to solve real problems.

    Well said. I’ve also run into similar responses when I’ve had trouble with the expected vocabulary, and it’s ridiculous to put it kindly. Shows where priorities lie in some cases, I’m afraid. I have meant to write something about this kind of behavior in terms of *actual nonviolence* among other things, but have not been able to yet.

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  15. I would like to say that I strongly agree with this article.

    We are currently involved in some “SJ” discussions on Tumblr, but we often find that the majority of those discussions are not focussed on actually creating more welcoming environments for people with different thinking styles or body mappings, but by policing the use of others’ language, and focussing on language to the exclusion of behaviour that demonstrates bigotry. It is less about intentions, and more about “are you speaking our language? Do you belong to our special clique, with its secret verbal handshakes?” That I find problematic, and it is something that is far from ideal when trying to promote others’ rights. Constantly pointing to others’ language and saying “this is ableist” is less effective than other methods that are not predicated on making sure that others’ language does not conform to that used by a social clique. It is frustrating, and I wish that there were more material communication.


  16. Hello. I just found your blog today, and I am extremely grateful for this post, as well as your related one on “mental widgets”. You’ve expressed things I have felt for a while, but I was unsure how to state them and afraid I was just wrong. When people use such words, it feels like they are pulling on my neurons without my consent. I am also autistic, but I have friends who are not autistic and understand the phenomenon. I wish more people understood this. Thank you so much.

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  18. I fully understand what you mean by cognitive pain, though mine isn’t usually triggered by words. Actually, it had never occurred to me to put it that way before, it seems to hit a lot closer to the mark than any attempts I’ve ever made to explain it to an NT.

    I usually get that feeling around certain kinds of questions, for a similar sort of understand-link-is-missing reason. Unfortunately, a lot of the time they’re also the kind of questions people will angrily repeat, often without even token attempts at clarifying, until you give them a satisfactory answer. :/ Which of course, I generally can’t.

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