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  • Evangelia Papoutsaki

Words That Reconnect: Re-imagining Language for Social Change

“Many words are walked in the world. Many worlds are made.

Many worlds make us. There are words and worlds that are lies and injustices.

There are words and worlds that are truthful and true.

In the world of the powerful there is room only for the big and

their helpers in the world we want everybody feeds.

The world we want is a world in which many worlds fit. […]

Softly and gently we speak the words which find the unity which will embrace us in

history and which will discard the abandonment which confronts and destroys us.”

-4th declaration of the Lacandon Jungle 1996, Zapatista National Liberation Army

Words that Reconnect (image copyright: E.Papoutsaki)

Words shape worlds. They construct realities, define eras, and reflect societal changes. As McConnell-Ginet aptly puts it, "linguistic and social change go hand in hand because linguistic practices are fundamental to social practices more generally." Words are the threads that weave the social fabric. Every social movement, from the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the LGBTQ rights movement of today, has brought forth a unique vocabulary that has transformed our collective consciousness. Terms like "intersectionality," "cisgender," and "microaggressions" have emerged in response to evolving understandings of identity, culture, and social dynamics.


Cultural theorist Raymond Williams proposed that subjects morph as quickly as the words describing them, suggesting that we create and name culture simultaneously. This idea was not top-down, but rather led by an understanding that everyone contributes to and can, therefore, interpret culture.

The act of naming objects establishes a relation; it is a means of expressing our concerns and our being. As philosopher Heidegger said, it is not that things do not exist if we don’t name them, but that their presence in the world is diminished.


Although I don’t fully agree with Heidegger western rational worldview, that implies to describe something is to bring it into a kind of being, giving utmost power to the naming agent (humans, colonizers, priests, men, victors etc.), the fact is that our words carry weight. Language is a powerful tool that shapes our thoughts, perceptions, and actions and by evolving our vocabulary, we can better articulate and address the complexities of social issues, challenge existing power structures, and inspire positive change. Here's why a new vocabulary is essential for social change:


Reflecting Evolving Social Contexts: As societies evolve, so do their challenges. A new or reclaimed vocabulary allows us to address emerging issues and adapt our understanding and response to contemporary social problems.


Amplifying Marginalized Voices: New words and concepts but also protection of marginalized languages can bring visibility and recognition to the experiences and struggles of marginalized communities, acknowledging their unique challenges and contributions to social change movements. This can contribute toward addressing what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls   “the single story” effect which  “creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete … they make the one story become the only story”.  Listening to marginalized voices in their unique words allows that single story to develop into the “full story” our societies need right now.


Challenging Norms and Stereotypes: Existing vocabulary often upholds stereotypes and reinforces biases. New terminology can disrupt these narratives, promoting a more inclusive and equitable understanding. Women for instance tend to view language differently. They intuitively include deeper contextual meanings and relational aspects in their definitions. When these women possess deep cultural knowledge, they interpret language from an even broader perspective, incorporating interconnected aspects of the entire cultural reality into the meaning. This makes their definitions not only descriptive but also associative and relational (Mitchell).

Promoting Intersectionality: A new vocabulary can capture the complexities of intersectionality, allowing for a more comprehensive understanding of social issues.


Expanding Social Awareness and Understanding: Social change often involves introducing new concepts that challenge the status quo. A new vocabulary can expand awareness, build knowledge, and deepen understanding of these issues.


Building Solidarity and Movement: New words, like co-witnessing and presencing, can foster a sense of shared identity and purpose among individuals working towards social change, facilitating meaningful solirarity, collaboration and collective action.


Inspiring Social Innovation and Solutions: New words and concepts, like circular economy, can spark creativity and innovation in finding solutions to social issues.


Empowering and Motivating Individuals: A new vocabulary can empower individuals by providing them with the language to express their experiences, challenges, and aspirations, inspiring them to become agents of change.


As sentient beings, our words carry weight. So, how can we co-create, (re)imagine as well as embrace an emergent (or latent) vocabulary that encapsulates our reality - one that is relational, inclusive, and acknowledges the interconnectedness of our multidimensional existence? What are the words that remind us of this inherent connection? And why do we need a new vocabulary for social change, a vocabulary that also reflects the diverse contexts in which WTR is now being practiced? An earlier invitation call through the WTR network, resulted in several submissions of re-imagined, re-interpreted or newly created words and concepts, most of which had a positive, forward looking and all embracing quality. This rather reflects a desire to use the power of language to illustrate and “breath” solutions.


Jeff Grygny, from The Performance Ecology Project, shared three concepts he considers worthwhile in reshaping thinking about the living world: Ecognosis - the realization that non-human beings are alive and sentient, with their own meanings and values; Nhau (pronounced like "now" with a little extra breath in the N)-  acronym for Non-Human Animate Organisms, a short way to say "non-human sentient beings"; and Ritualish - a performance that is both meaningful and rather playful, not quite as solemn as a ritual, more meaningful than a casual gesture, like bowing to a tree or singing to a squirrel.


Zeinab Benchakroun’s three words and their opposites add to this list: Restorying - which means to bring back through stories and myths the world as a place of harmony, reverence, and beauty; Coinspire vs Conspire - if inspire means to breathe life into, then co-inspire would mean to do it together; and Hedgucation vs Education - it refers to "hedge schools" where under colonization old tellers had to share the wisdom of stories from their ancestors to youth behind the hedges because of punishment from the colonizers if they were caught doing so. Tamlin Heatherwood, from the Dorroughby Environmental Education Center, suggested we include eldering, and 'mwe' (me/we), meaning we are not separate - it represents our interconnection to all species.


Katharine Burke shared the key concept from her book “Earthward: Toward a New Ecological Paradigm for Schools”. Earthward is a word that reconnects. It indicates the resolve to make every step possible in the moment, in each person's life and circumstances without judgement, toward a world reconnected with the natural, more than human world, and with each other. The premise of earthward is, as Miriam Rowley explains, to 'start anywhere, and follow it everywhere'. It does not create blame or shame around what each person is able to do, and thus connects, rather than divides, our efforts. It celebrates stories. It embraces the concept of tipping points in our own human journey- that each of us, with each of our own steps, can shift the story toward an emergence of the new human and new society we need.


Andrea Hamilton contributed with the rather original concept of war-murmuration:


War – Conflict, fighting, struggles, hostilities, competition, battle

Warm – Sincere, Global warming, heartfelt, kind

Murmuration – Large groups of birds, flocking together

Murmur – to speak or say something quietly


What does it mean to war-murmuration? We are in a world of great social unrest. Identities have crossed lines, a futuristic blending of genders and boundaries. Is this a new freedom or a prison of our own making? To identify in traditionalist terms as male or female, is the basis of life, but what happens when we choose to not conform, by removing identity, have we in the process, become faceless, numbers, a society of specimens unknown. New names, new classifications, new indexing, filing system, for humans, but to what end, to what achievement, albeit intense confusions. It seems we are at war with ourselves, we are not united as the starlings murmurations, in whose name we take. The issues that are surrounding us, that affect everyone of all genders, are global warming and climate changes, mass destruction of war, injustices of the system and the growing poverty.  Andrea asks, have we become so selfish, we seek distractions, as we turn in on ourselves to hide from them?


Reclaiming the meaning of words is also important as Bruce Bekker argues. Kindness, balance, curiosity, confident motion, creativity, and compassion – just for example – are connected by a realm of awareness we once recognized as “Imagination.”  We need to reclaim this word, Bruce says. Sometimes we need to revisit existing words to draw new meaning or bring forth the original meaning, like for instance logical vs mythological, where the myth has its own logic, that embraces both the heart and the mind, as Meade so eloquently put in one of his Mosaic podcasts, The Forgotten Language of Myth. David Whyte in his book, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, reminds us the forgotten and deeper meaning of words we are using every day, also reconnecting us with the original and often poetic meaning of many words.


One of Deborah Leipziger’s contributions, bayanihan, comes from The Lexicon of Change.  This Tagalog word “evokes the spirit of communal unity, work and cooperation to a achieve a particular goal. The tradition of bayanihan can be traced back to rural areas of the Philippines where the town’s people are asked to lend a hand to a family moving to a new place, the “bahay kubo” a traditional Filipino house made of indigenous materials like bamboo and nipa/ananhaw leaves, is carried on bamboo poles with 15-20 volunteers. Modern day examples of bayanihan can be seen in the context of Filipinos facing and helping each other during natural disasters.” (Maria Mariano, as told to Deborah Leipziger, for The Lexicon of Change). Deborah also shared a Portuguese term, floresta em pé which refers to “the standing forest” rather than the forest which has been dismantled. The concept is important in terms of strategies for sustaining forests.


Deborah’s last contribution was Future Justice, a key concept of sustainability is the focus on the long-term. But who represents future generations in our governance structures? Several countries and regions are appointing leaders to address the needs of future generations and represent their viewpoints in current legislation and policy debates. The World Future Council created the concept of Future Justice and will grant a Future Policy Award.  Other examples include Hungary, which appointed the first Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations, serving as an Ombudsman for the environment representing the voices of future generations;   New Zealand has appointed a Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment whose mandate is “investigate and report on any matters where the environment may be, or has been, adversely affected; Wales has a future Generations Commissioner. In 2015, Wales enacted the Well-being of Future Generations Act. 

Heroic comes from Lee Shane who discovered Joseph Campbell's “Hero With A Thousand Faces” many years ago and it changed the course of her life. Like many things in the world, still, are too narrowly defined.  Her mission is to address that. Anyone can be Heroic, just not everyone, she says. We are all on a journey of ‘Departure, Road of Trails and Return’ (with an Elixir/Boon).  Lee asks, what would the world look like if we defined expanding our awareness and consciousness as being Heroic; aspiring to live with a personal code of Integrity, Dignity and Compassion for self and all other living beings as part of a Planetary Mythology?  Heroes and Heroines alike: Heroic.


Malin Christensson, from the Forest Path, suggested several words: presencing-the cycle of absencing and the cycle of presencing denote different social fields. The cycle of absencing represents a field of destruction and social coldness while the cycle of presencing represents a field of co-creation and social warmth (The Presensing Institute); Mindsight: the way we can focus attention on the nature of the internal world. It's how we focus our awareness on ourselves, so our own thoughts and feelings, and it's how we're able to actually focus on the internal world of someone else; The Evolved Nest is a breakthrough concept that integrates findings across fields that bear on child development, child raising and adult behavior.  The Evolved Nest promotes optimal health and wellbeing, cooperation, and receptive and sociomoral intelligences. Societal moves away from providing the Evolved Nest have contributed to the ill being and dysregulation we see in one another and society. Learn how to nest your children and re-nest yourself;  Desettling is the disruption of colonized practice; regenarratives, a concept from place-based pedagogy that draws upon much Turtle Island Indigenous epistemological and ontological frameworks. The notion of regenarratives is not the exclusive province of any one person. It was a notion dreamt of by our ancestors' millenniums ago we are sure; resurgent narratives, the idea that we must be capable of imagining healthy possible futures in order to act now in ways that will bring them about. It is also utilized by mental health experts as a suicide prevention method; Bilita Mpash (Bantu) an amazing dream, not just a "good" dream; the opposite of a nightmare.


LISTEN, followed by HEAR was Sandy Boyd’s contribution while Maureen Calamia’s invitation to “simple, simple, simple” reminds that restoring a connection to the earth need not be a monumental task. It doesn’t require an elaborate ceremony, or samadhi state of being. Just awareness and gratitude. We humans make things too complicated. As the energy has become more chaotic on this planet, our capacity to reconnect has increased as well. Access to that connection has become more streamlined. What was once available to shamans is now available to anyone who craves that connection. And we can have it in an instant.


Risa Mandell came across the phrase 'calling in' as a replacement to 'calling out', which has a confrontational tone whereas 'calling in' has a soft, inclusive tone and invites us, if not to agree, to at least disagree, agreeably.  She just googled these phrases and found this guide, followed by this article in the NY Times.


Blissonance is mentioned by Sarah Nahar, a concept by two feminists who initiated the Bureau of Linguistic Realities in 2014 for the purpose of collecting, translating and creating a new vocabulary for the Anthropocene. This concept refers to when an otherwise blissful experience in nature is wedded to or disrupted by the recognition that: One is having an adverse impact on that place they are enjoying by being there; The understanding of how the place will be negatively affected in the near future by urbanization, climate change or other disrupting factors. It also means the blissful short-term experience of sunny, dry, pleasant weather that can accompany severe drought or other long-term climate changes— for which, the experiencer, has long term concerns and which portends doom for all living creatures that depend on water in that area. In this context Blissonance can be used synonymously with Psychic Corpus Dissonance or Schadenfebruary.  Sarah mentioned she experiences blissonance especially related to warm days when it's not supposed to be warm.


And there more examples we could add, like gender apartheid, referring to “practices which condemn girls and women to a separate and subordinate sub-existence” (Chester). And the term carefrontational, a blend of 'care' and 'confrontational' that signifies a shift from aggressive confrontation to a more empathetic and caring approach to disagreements. This term is a reflection of the growing emphasis on empathy and understanding in our interactions, a crucial aspect of social change. Similarly, co-agonist replaces antagonist, suggesting a shift from opposition to collaboration. In a world increasingly defined by cooperation and mutual support, this term encapsulates the spirit of unity and shared goals. Multiversial is offered as a replacement for 'controversial' that acknowledges the existence of multiple perspectives and realities, promoting a more inclusive and diverse understanding of issues. This term is a testament to the growing recognition of diversity and pluralism in our society.  And we cannot leave out Interbeing, Tech Na Khan’s beautiful word that encapsulates the WTR’s essence. Solastagia, a neologism used to for emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change, often in relation to climate change.  Endarkenment, Eden Tull’s antidote to the tyranny of our “sunshining culture” and its focus on the external world, constantly seeking externally driven pleasure and satisfaction.


Transability, a combination of 'trans' and 'ability', challenges the traditional concept of disability. It emphasizes the fluidity of abilities and the potential for transformation, reflecting the ongoing social change towards a more inclusive understanding of abilities. And sentipensar, a favourite term of mine which combines 'feeling' and 'thinking', changing the position of 'I think' to the 'We as thinking-feeling with the Earth'. It signifies the integration of emotion and intellect, a crucial aspect of holistic understanding and decision-making in our changing society. Storyworlds suggests the power of narratives in shaping our understanding of the world, reflecting the growing recognition of the role of stories in social change.  Co-witnessing, a concept that invites to step beyond the simple act of witnessing to a space of genuine solidarity that requires both an open mind and heart.

"Words are not just words. They have moods, climates of their own. -Osho, 365 Meditations for the here and now.


Symbiocene and biophilia reflect the growing emphasis on environmental sustainability and love for nature, respectively. Biocracy, on the other hand, suggests a governance model that respects and prioritizes biodiversity, reflecting the urgent need for environmental conservation in our times.

Kaitiakitanga and tūrangawaewae, terms from te reo Maori, signify 'guardianship' and 'belonging', respectively. These terms reflect the indigenous wisdom and values that are increasingly being recognized as crucial for sustainable social change, like Kincentricity, a concept from Indigenous scholarship that supports an obligation to live in harmony with all kin. As Mitchell reminds us in her seminar book, Sacred Instructions, “our languages are meant to be relational. They teach us how to live in kinship with one another, how to engage the natural elements in our environment, and how to place ourselves with the larger creation”.


The Pluriverse post-development dictionary provides a rich source of alternative vocabulary for our times, including for instance maldevelopment, geo-engineering, transhumanism, body politics, buen vivir, convivialism, ecofeminism, new matriarchies, sea ontologies, undeveloping the north, and wages for housework,  to mention but a few! Among them, biocivilisation stands out, an invitation to become a citizen of biological multiverse (see Advaya).


How about replacing Thomas Moor’s Utopia with Eutopia? Utopia, derived from the Greek οú (not) and τόπος (place), strictly meaning no-place, has come to mean a perfect place or society — usually imagined, often in the future. On the other hand, eutopia, derived from the Greek εú (good or well) and τόπος (place), might offer us a better alternative to More’s utopia which often connotes an ungraspable, slipping constantly out of our reach reality (See Becomes Tree Becomes Forest).


I am tempted here, as a scholar and educator, to propose a last concept, that of undiscipline vs discipline, out of a desire to free up knowledge and epistemological frameworks from their western silos of disciplinary learning. Previous attempts to address the need to expand knowledge without these constraints resulted in terms like inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary fields of study but perhaps we are ready to undo those silos all together and go back to the original meaning of “episteme”, derived from the Greek epistēmē (knowledge, understanding) that was not divided but more wholistic. As an island studies scholar, I see how this undisciplining helps me better understand life on small islands that demonstrate the interconnectedness of the human and more-than-human world.


The list of words shared here is by no means exhaustive. They offer us a glimpse of an emerging and current vocabulary that demonstrates how the creation of new words is a crucial aspect of social change. It not only reflects the evolving societal values and paradigms but also facilitates the communication and understanding of these changes. As we navigate through times of social change, these new and reclaimed terms serve as linguistic signposts, guiding us towards a more inclusive, empathetic, and sustainable society. And let us also keep in mind  Delia Duncan’s suggestion, that "there is no need to reconnect, instead, we need to remember that we have always been connected."


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