Rethinking Violent Language (with Anna Taylor)

A couple of months ago, a meme called “Evolving from Violent Language” by Anna Taylor, was posted on Facebook (Meta), and last winter, on Twitter (X).

Taylor is a communications director and “diversity, equity and inclusion champion” at the American technology company, Phenomenex.

Leaders of democratic countries which value freedom of speech usually do not want to prescribe what language their citizens “should” use, in boardrooms, classrooms, offices, newspapers and other contexts (both on- and off-line).

But in recent times of mis- or dis-information, lies and so-called “fake news” (much courtesy of politicians of the right and those inspired by them), we have seen an intensification of violence in the  language we use to converse routinely, across many disciplines.

Violent vocabulary has developed from both of the last century’s World Wars, and the many other, deadly conflict zones that have transpired since them (e.g. Vietnam, the Middle East, the Balkans, Sudan, Ukraine, etc.)

Consider Taylor’s meme, below:


INSTEAD OF . . .                                                     TRY THIS . . .

We’re going to pull the trigger  


We’re going to launch


I’ll take a stab at [it]  

I’ll take the first pass at [it]


Did we jump the  gun? Did we start too soon?
I’ll bite the bullet I won’t avoid it any longer
That’ll kill two birds with one stone That’ll feed two birds with one scone
What’s the deadline? What’s the due date?
We have to pick our battles We have to choose our opportunities
Can you shoot me an email? Can you send me an email?
That was overkill That was a bit excessive
I bombed the presentation I didn’t do my best
Let’s just roll with the punches Let’s just move forward
We can soften the blow by . . . We can make it a little easier by . . .
I’m going to take a shot in the dark I’m going to take a guess
That’s not a bad idea That’s a good idea
Let’s not beat a dead horse Let’s not focus on that anymore
I was blown away by her presentation I was impressed by her presentation
I was kicking around an idea I was thinking through an idea
He’s a straight shooter in meetings He’s pretty direct in meetings

Even these, apparently innocuous, idioms (left-hand column) can evoke violence that is not empathetic, or forward-looking. Over watercoolers and in boardrooms, we tend to inflate in alarmist ways the tone of our speech, which then dwarfs the value of the ideas under discussion.

As a teacher of the English language and as an experienced business communicator, I know that inflammatory use of language can desensitize its readers or listeners, through its exaggerated tone.

The language of the left-hand column (above) presents its ideas as shocking,  toxic, excessive and open to garrulity.  In so doing, we lose the thinking (logic), discretion, reasonableness and privacy that many of us still value in communication.

Not surprisingly, Anna Taylor’s meme has met opposition (including plenty of racist, sexist and ad hominem comments) from others who invest in such “violent language.” Challenging one form of linguistic violence can beget another, as a response.

As humans, we are always already limited by what literary critic and theorist Fredric Jameson called “The Prison-house of Language.” But in these chaotic and conflict-filled times, democratic speakers and writers, including Taylor and all of us, still have the autonomy to reflect on, critique and remake some of the “prison’s” most distorted and confining bars.

And given that internationally, these days, politicans who favour violence succeed in election (or-re-election),  we need to think, now more than ever, about the violent ways we (mis)represent the truths of our world–and , in so doing, mistreat each other.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but, far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”

And now it’s your turn: What inflammatory use of language have you observed recently? Do you counter it and how?