A word about words

I had a few concerned messages concerning last Thursday’s post, and I just wanted to clarify that my Munch-ian post was a tongue in cheek attempt to capture our general zeitgeist, not some horrible news on my part! Also, fun fact: the original Norwegian title was “Skrik”, or shriek. Also, does anyone else get a Macauley Culkin from “Home Alone” vibe whenever they see that painting?

Also, it brings to mind the exhortation of Japanese amusement park management that roller coaster riders not scream aloud, but rather “scream in (their) hearts“.

OK, on to the main part of today’s discussion.

Words are important to me as a writer. They are even more important now as they offer my major creative outlet during this forced pause in music-making. I try to be very careful about my use of words, because I understand the weight they carry, and and I am sensitive to the way others use them.

As I’ve been spending more time curating my presence on various social media platforms, I’ve received, via comments, DMs, messages from my website etc., more communication from a wider variety of people on a more consistent basis than I ever have before. And there are a lot of words being used that make me unhappy, and I have a feeling that they might make others unhappy too, and thus are worth discussing here.

So, let me dissect one of my least favorite phrases.

It is never appropriate to call someone, especially me, a “young lady”. Well, OK, you could call me “young lady” if I were 16 and you were my grandfather, or if I were 16 and you were my mother admonishing me for some teenage transgression. Since none of these scenarios are true, it’s best not to call me a “young lady”.

“Young lady” is patronizing at best, demeaning at worst. If it is being used as a supposed term of endearment, I would suggest a long, hard look at the meaning behind the phrase, given the nuance of implied authority.

First, “lady” is a British title, or something girlfriends lightheartedly call each other.

Second, “young”. I know I look “young”. I know that “young” is a relative term. However, why are we putting age into consideration? What is being implied?

That because I’m “young” I have “so much ahead of me” (written by more than one well-meaning social media follower)? Well, first off it’s untrue. I am middle aged. At very best I might have as many years ahead of me as behind me, but that’s being a bit optimistic. Second, this comment implies that I’m in some sort of nascent stage of my life/career, when in truth I’ve been in the music for 20 some-odd years, and at this point I am mentoring, not being mentored. By defining me by “youth”, assumptions are then being made about my skills or experiences based on an extremely superficial assessment. And I’m immediately infantilized.

That being called “young” is somehow a compliment? I know I appear much younger than my biological age (by the way, does anyone else feel like they’re permanently 29, or is it just me?), and I suppose that this is beneficial given our society’s obsessive focus on youth. But I don’t need to be reminded of this. There are some marvelous aspects to getting older (as well as the creaks and pains), and being denied the respect of experience and accomplishment and sense of self because of this obsession with youth is painful to witness.

And how is age germane to any conversation that doesn’t involve voting, drinking, or AARP?

As women, we are constantly scrutinized. What we wear, how we wear it, the shape and weight of our bodies, the lines on our faces. We are expected to inhabit some strange world of permanent youth, an impossible suspension of time. We are judged by our appearances – as if toned biceps (but not too muscular, please) and wrinkle-free eyes (thank you Botox) were some indication of competence or character.

As all women, I’m on the receiving end of constant commentary that belies this scrutiny, no matter how well-meaning. It is belittling. It is exhausting. It is infuriating. And there are so many ways, and on a daily basis, that we live with these indignities, big and small.

Which is all to say, please, please, never call me a young lady.

11 thoughts on “A word about words

  1. David Mackey says:

    I think you are stunning…I love watching you work. You are a very talented and beautiful woman!! Six days and 7 nights, like the movie? I can really dream sometimes, I guess. XXOO to ya…


  2. Bonsoir Maestra Sarah.
    Regarding your last post I understood roughly the ‘zeitgeist’ that you were referring to (even if I wasn’t sure at 100 % and couldn’t find the proper term). just couldn’t put a like on that post neither did I have something pertinent to add in the comment. I preferred to shut up. Here in Montréal I sometimes feel like that guy on the painting. I would like to yell at the people I see outside: “Put your f!ck!ng (tabarnak in québécois) mask on otherwise we’ll get another lock down. I don’t want a second wave.” I remember now Macaulay Culkin’s face in “Home Alone”. I never thought of that before.
    Bravo for this post. As you probably know I am the minority in my profession (we’re +- 10 % male nurses worldwide). Some of my female colleagues (rn, social worker, physiotherapist,…) tell me once in a while that some patients are calling them by names (cute young chick,…). If a patient is saying something macho toward a female colleague I do my best to put him at his place. We’re unfortunately living in a society where the physical appearance is number 1. It is sad. Botox (people sometimes forget it is a toxin and buy the bs from the specialists saying it is harmless. We still don’t know yet the mid term effect of that toxin).
    That being said I remember when I started as a rn I had an invite for a birthday dinner. I was the only man. We were about 12. They asked me how old I thought my rn colleague was. She was 37 and just turned 38. I answered 47. Wrong answer. I think that if she had had a glass of water she would have pitched it to me in the face. The other nurses were laughing at me. I apologized and felt bad but I was just trying to give an honest answer. Since then I learned to never say anything about age. If I ever called you by these two words you are referring in your post I apologized. If it is the case I’ll ask my wife to slap me in the face x 12. I might have gooff even if I’m known for being a gentleman.
    I’m also careful with the choice of words even more when it is not my mother tongue. It’s just comprehensible that you put the record straight (mettre les pendules à l’heure as we say in French).
    Keep up your good work.
    n.b.: I will have more crazy (frenchy froggy) ideas for you soon. Wrebbit.


      1. Thanks for the advice, Sarah. I’ll make a clinical trial with my wife first. She’s 54 so she’s a cougar. I’ll tell her that she looks 29. I might then avoid of being slapped in the face x 12.


  3. Hello. Having read that, I feel someone was patronising, and might not even realized it. Was there an age difference between you and a person? But it also brings a question of how should one address a high profile female conductor, in social media to be respectful but also not to distant. Best Regards


  4. Wayne Zelenak says:

    Sarah, Words are also very important to me as with manners and etiquette. Men and women are defined in a restaurant by their eating habits, loud voices, and choice of words. In an instant, a trained psychologist can determine their personality and place on the social ladder. Reading some of the comments by men on your FB page denigrate you as a talented professional, and prominent musician. Referring to you as a young lady is also belittling, to say the least.

    With 5,000 friends on FB, you have a wide cross-section of fans. I have found that musicians are compassionate, creative, and considerate of you and use words of respect and praise. Others use discursive chaff in their comments.

    With your Muchiian photo, I thought it was very interesting and I reposted my blog on my FB page. Most would not recognize that photo, Van Gogh paintings or the value in art museums. Each painting and classical piece of music represents the feelings of the artist and their creative expressions. They become an artist’s legacy placing meaning to their life, work, and contribution to the arts.

    I truly appreciate your contributions to social media by your behind the scene blogs and informative material. Reading your bio at Curtis sheds light on your comment where women are constantly scrutinized by their height, hair, clothes, and demeanor, without recognizing their talent in the arts. I’ve seen and heard these discriminating words that define the person delivering them not the subject of their words.

    It is a shame that women have to live with these indignities by insensitive, and bigoted individuals who are so shallow and rude.

    Stay positive, safe, inspiring going forward.


  5. Wayne Zelenak says:

    Sarah, This “A word about words” discussion is fascinating and I’ve read it over several times, and each time I discover something new about you. One thing is your deep thoughts as you articulate each word in your narrative, like choosing a fine bottle of vintage wine or finding the perfect note to complete a film score. For me, it demonstrates imagination, creativity, and aforethought, the ingredients of a best-selling novel, or the poignant lyrics to a melody that brings a listener to tears.

    Another thing I’ve noticed is you are direct and forthright in expressing your opinions, a trait of self-confidence, intellect, and poise; resolute in your decisions. Lastly, you demonstrate compassion for animals, people, and noble causes that help others. One, in particular, is the mental health issues the thread woven through all of your blogs.

    As a writer myself, I choose my words carefully to inspire others and make a difference each day to be aware of the beauty of the world, the value of friendship and family, and learning to be content living abundantly in the present and sharing our blessings. Classical music has become my passion and your social media platforms have inspired, educated, and motivated me to share them with others.

    Disparaging and hostile words from others are their Karma, your response is your Karma…


  6. Yes! Exactly. Though — and I know this is the opposite of what you meant — I confess to having some jealousy that you are called ‘young.’ At 52, this hasn’t happened to me in ages. It used to infuriate me when it did, and now that it doesn’t, I know I’m truly on the other side of the Middle Ages.


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