BARRETT: A rose by any other name … depends

Thomas Barrett

“Don’t offend us by calling our Residence Halls dorms! Dorms are a place where you sleep. Residence Halls are a place where you sleep, eat, learn, have fun, interact with your peers, build relationships and lasting friendships. You can call them homes, rooms, halls, residence halls or cribs. But never dorm or dormitory.” This flyer can be found posted throughout various “residence halls” around campus, but why is there such a fuss about whether someone calls his or her “residence hall” a dorm? Why would anyone give such power to any word, never mind one as harmless as “dormitory”? This problem, however, has become fairly common not only on this college campus but also in American culture. Too often people tend to focus too much on the individual spoken word and not enough on the word’s meaning.

Take the “residence hall” issue as an example. Consider these two statements. “I really love my dorm. I’ve met so many great people. It really feels like home,” and “You know, I hate my residence hall. If I had to pick any place as the place I hate most in the entire world, it would undoubtedly be my residence hall.” In the first statement, it is quite obvious that the word “dorm” has positive connotations for the student, and in the second statement, it is clear that this student is not too fond of his “residence hall.” In each of these statements, the speaker gave the words “dorm” and “residence hall” positive and negative meaning, respectively, but the point is that the two words could easily be interchanged. So it seems that whether or not a word should be labeled as “offensive” depends on usage rather than the word itself.

This same logic applies to even the dirtiest and most vulgar words. Now, these words should not be shouted in most situations, but that does not mean that they are inherently bad. Context matters. When done in a comfortable and private setting among close friends, swearing can be quite humorous and appropriate. For instance, which of these sounds more offensive: a friend facetiously telling you to “[expletive] yourself,” or a stranger sincerely saying, “You know, you are not a good person”?

By disguising our language with countless layers of euphemisms, we are attributing far more power to words than they deserve. Instead of focusing on each individual word and phrase, we should instead begin trying to understand what we are really saying. The intention of the speaker and the context of the statement matter just as much as, if not more than, the actual definitions of the words themselves. It is a waste of time and energy to try to soften up speech when it is entirely unnecessary. Words are words. They only mean what we want them to mean when we use them, so why get worked up about a particular word (especially one like “dorm”)? And if someone does happen to say something that is particularly offensive, just remember, “Sticks and stones …”


Tom Barrett is a sophomore philosophy major from Colonia, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected].