Sticks & Stones

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

We’ve all heard it, but have we ever considered how completely untrue that idiom is?

I was talking to my sister this past weekend, and there are specific moments and words that we can remember clearly even from childhood. Of all the memories our brains could have stored, it stored those hurtful moments and words. Instead of casting them aside in place of happier memories, those ones stick out. They’re prickly. We feel their effects even now.

In junior high, there was one boy in my class who seemed to make it his mission to use his words to hurt me. Fat pig. That was his favourite phrase. My mere existence branded me a fat pig more times than I could count.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

That’s what I’d been told. But they did hurt. They tore deeply into my teenage girl self-esteem and contributed to my hatred of my body. The things that jiggle or roll when I sit. It’s been years since those words were hurled at me, but I still look at my body some days and think those two words: fat pig.

Be careful with your words. Once they are said, they can be only forgiven, not forgotten.


Words matter. The fact that this is up for debate is troublesome. It’s not about safe spaces or being snowflakes. (Side note: can we stop calling people snowflakes? Please??) Words matter. They carry a weight beyond mass. Your words have the power to build someone up or tear them down. Your words can be the thing that passes through their mind on a regular basis: do you want this to be in a positive way or do you want to contribute to their pain?

You can say all you want that words can’t hurt you, but they do. Physical wounds heal. Wounds turn into scars, but what happens to our emotional wounds? Those words become imprinted like a tattoo and it’s much, much harder to overcome those.

The tongue has no bones, but is strong enough to break a heart. So be careful with your words.


I could make a long list of the things people have said over the years that tumble around in my brain and make me question myself even years after the fact.

It’s really hard loving you,” said by a boyfriend at the time. This has coloured all of my relationships since.

You’re kind of annoying,” said by a somehow well-meaning (?) friend. This has made me second guess all my interactions and wonder if I’m too much.

You, personally, from your own lived experience, may not understand the weight of certain words. But you are responsible for the weight that they carry and the wounds that they inflict.

People get confused about freedom of speech and think it is a “talk like a jerk” freebie. Sure, you can say whatever you want, but people are also free to respond in whatever way they see fit. If you insist on using words that have derogatory meanings, other people be damned, you paint yourself as… well, a jerk. And people will treat you in kind.

I present to you this… mess to illustrate what I mean.

Allow me to paint you a scene: I posted some politically-charged thoughts on Instagram after the recent Alberta election. This individual, whom I had never met but had followed me for awhile, went off. He started off by calling me “my dear.” Here’s a pro tip to everyone everywhere: don’t call a woman you don’t know “my dear.” It’s patronizing. Stop it.

Anyway, it devolved into all manner of nonsense. In the first screenshot, you will see he threatens to somehow get me fired from my job for sharing my views and coming off hostile and aggressive. I’ll admit, I was both those things but this guy was so incredibly aggravating. Granted, there is no conceivable way he could actually accomplish this, but still a strange direction to take this conversation. I hope you can see the way that he refers to himself as “emotionally stable,” insinuating that I am not, and he did in fact call me emotionally unstable later on.

Cool story, bro.

In the second screenshot, he invokes the “stature of rights and limitations” [sic]. He threatened me, harassed me, told me I shouldn’t be doing what I do, called me emotionally unbalanced and essentially insane, was patronizing and rude, yet claims this is all protected under a statute he can’t even spell correctly.

Yes, he had every legal right to do it, but what did he accomplish? I did not change my mind. I did not stop sharing my thoughts.

He did hurt my feelings. He made me question myself. He made me wonder why I bother sharing any of my thoughts. People who love and support me shared their messages of encouragement and that keeps me motivated to keep going. So his onslaught, his actual verbal assault on my character, really had… no effect. (He accused me of “verbally assaulting” his character when I never said anything against him as a person, just about his method of communicating his displeasure with my views. But I digress).

You have the right to say it. But I and my friends have the right to think you’re a jerk. You pick.

There are specific words that have hurtful and offensive meanings. Here’s an English lesson for you: there is a difference between denotation and connotation. Denotation is the literal or primary meaning of a word. Connotation is an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its denotation.

Here is but one example in a sea of many: the r-word. I’ve fought this fight and had this argument countless times. The denotation of r*tarded has its roots in the medical field to describe people with intellectual or other challenges. The connotation is what’s important. The r-word is offensive to many people, yet some people still insist on using it because “it’s just a word.”

There are so many words in the English language. It’s not that hard to find a different one. Instead of referring to something as “r*tarded,” you can use ridiculous, challenging, strange, surprising, or something else depending on the circumstance. Here’s a handy chart for you from Special Olympics Northern California:

I could go on, but Google is free. You can find your own alternatives for other words that you know are offensive.

If you’ve used these words, then that doesn’t mean you’re automatically a terrible person. But if someone points out to you that “this is offensive,” it’s important you acknowledge the weight of those words. We all make mistakes or speak from an uninformed position, but when we are presented with new information, it’s important we take steps to work on it.

Sure, you can use whatever word you want. No one is stopping you. But you’re also just portraying yourself as someone who would rather be rude or offensive than use a little bit of brain power to come up with a different word.

Show how smart you are and pick a different word.

Words matter.

What are you going to do with yours?

2 thoughts on “Sticks & Stones

  1. Yeah, anyone who says “they don’t care” is either lying or don’t realize they’re mistaken. We all care, it’s just our level of care that varies from a lot to very little. I loved the honesty of your post! I would like to add a little something about that idiom, “sticks and stones.” First off, we can agree that it’s a terrible saying. Like when someone says, “two wrongs don’t make it right.” But then if you ask them about the criminal justice system and is it right for someone to be locked up against their will for the wrong they committed…you leave ’em quite baffled. When I was growing up, (I’m 33), the sticks and stones saying was used, not so much to deny the pain words inflict…but more so to toughen me up. I used to cry about everything. Kids used to pick on me and when I told the nearest adult, they’d tell me sticks and stones…and yes, I hated hearing it. But more than anything it taught me that people weren’t going to help me. hahahaha! holy ish…no lie, I just realized that by writing to you here and now. But yeah, nowadays, it feels like we can rely more on the village, the twitter mob, your peers to help you out when you’re being bullied or feel oppressed. But back then, I got in a lot of fights and I’m definitely tougher. I won’t say if it was better then, than it is now, but I do like how tough I am when it comes to words and fists.


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