Monday 19 March 2012

Inigo Montoya Teaching Moment #3: Fight the 'Power'

It's been a while since my last post on words and wordcraft, allegedly still the focal point of this blog. Things have taken a decidedly more political and sociological bent on Brush Talk in recent weeks, but now we return to the radix (see IMTM #1).

Those of you who follow this blog are now no doubt familiar with the Inigo Montoya Teaching Moments, which focus on commonly misused words in the English language. In the past I've looked at 'radical' and 'gender', both of which are fairly recent corruptions. Today, however, we examine a word that to my mind has been misused for so long that nothing short of a gargantuan language paradigm shift is likely to change its use. It's still, however, worth examining.

The word in question this time is 'power'. It's a word that appears almost everywhere, in just about every context you can think of. The power of one. Speak truth to power. Female empowerment. Power colour. The power of imagination. Fight the power. The powers that be. It's truly everywhere, and moreover it's something that we're all supposed to want. I mean, don't we all want to be empowered, or at least have a little more power over our own destiny?

I've always been somewhat wary of the word power, and then after a discussion with Dr. Maggie Hodgson, a respected Elder from the Carrier Nation in central BC and a tireless advocate of restorative justice and reconciliation, I realized why that was. Dr. Hodgson talked of the many subtle but telling misunderstandings and miscommunications between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal stakeholders - and how one particular group of Elders objected to the characterization of a BC land claim settlement as a 'transition of power'. 'Power', in their view, was a colonialist word that implied the subordination of one group by another. When asked what they sought to gain from the land deal with the BC government, the responded with a single-word answer: strength.

So what exactly does the word 'power' mean? In scientific terms, Dr. Hodgson's characterization of it is indeed close to the mark. In physics, power is the rate at which energy is transferred, used or transformed. In the case of electric 'power', it's the rate at which energy is transformed into light or heat, as measured in wattage. In other words, power is not simply a synonym for strength or energy. Power does necessitate application, the degree to which said strength or energy is applied externally, as in 'power of attorney' or 'executive power'. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, this does make it a more inherently confrontational and frictious word than strength, which is a more defensive and reserved state of being.

Why, then, are we always talking about power in our culture? It could be because we're hyper-sensitive to having power applied to us by the powers that be and that, like Chuck D, Flava Flav and Professor Griff, we do feel compelled to fight the power. Also, references to power abound in our culture, from the Bible (divine power) to Karl Marx (power over the means of production) to our cultural touchstones (the power of the Force). But I can't help but feel that our culture's fixation on power is a major factor in the current state of our planet - both in the cavernous gaps in economic prosperity that plague our society and our rampant destruction of our natural environment.

But can we purge our language of improper usages of the word 'power'? Easier said than done, most likely. I tried this week to find alternative words for power in my own speech and writing - and failed miserably. Is there a good alternative to the word 'empowerment'? I can't really think of one. In our high 'powered' modern world, expressions like 'strength' just sound wimpy. Like a drug, language has a tendency to reach a tolerance level in our society, at which point a stronger, more potent word is needed to replace the old one whose energy is spent. This would probably explain the proliferation of profanity in our culture, and why curse words of old don't have much sting left in them.

It would be ridiculous to advocate a return to the 'correct' use of the word power - if for no other reason because I've seen no indication that this word has ever been used properly. But it might not be a bad idea to reflect on the word, as it is a word that I believe is taken to mean something other than what it actually means. And in the meantime, please enjoy what has to be the funkiest protest song ever recorded courtesy of Public Enemy. And do fight the power. It deserves to be fought.


  1. Here's an interesting perspective.

    We all seek empowerment. What is that, really, in the context of Maslow's hierarchy of needs? Why, it's what's at the very pinnacle. It's self-actualization.

    According to the dictionary, empower means "to enable or permit", and actualize, interestingly, means "to make real; to turn into action or fact". Not exactly synonymous, if you are really keen on splitting hairs, but very close in my view.

    With actualization comes self-confidence, and that, in my opinion, is what gives a person strength -- the gist of what the doctor in your article was driving at.

    Just my two cents...

  2. Interesting. I guess 'empowerment' is really a different thing than 'power' in and of itself. In retrospect I wonder if this post amounts to unnecessary hair-splitting, although I do think Maggie has a point in questioning the use of the word 'power' within the context of treaty-making. Especially given the historical abuses of 'power' that have gone on in this country.

    Enlightening as always, Rachelle!