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What's in a Name?

by Brian Culp, Indiana University Purdue University, Indianapolis

Words can inspire a thousand pictures. Words have the potential to incite, divide, unite, create, and effect change. As a teacher educator, I often engage my students in discussions about the classroom environment and issues of safety and social growth. In recent months, I've started more than a few conversations regarding how to maintain the integrity of environments for activity and play, particularly as it relates to the topic of verbal pollution.

Verbal pollution refers to the use of words and comments that the majority agrees are offensive and damaging (Fisher, 2008). Today we frequently see these comments and values communicated through music, television, cyberspace and other forms of media and technology. Verbal pollution undermines the promotion of successful outcomes and has implication for our practices.

Through our upbringing many of us in our have been conditioned to ignore verbal pollution. If we don't it gives the impression of weakness. Unconvinced? Consider one of the most frequently quoted English language idioms: "Sticks and Stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me." This rhyme, reported first in 1862, encourages a child victim of name-calling to ignore taunting, refrain from physical retaliation, and to remain calm and good-natured. But in today's world, this well-intended phrase is both untrue and hypercritical.

I believe that verbal pollution is a huge reason for the increase of bullying in today's schools. With bullying, aggression usually includes repetitive behaviors, an imbalance of power between the parties involved, and an intent to harm the other person physically or emotionally (Fuller, Gulbrandson & Herman-Ukasick, 2013). Traditionally, the physical aspect of bullying gets most attention because the results are immediate and obvious . Verbal bullying remains an area not well well defined. In other words, one student giving another a black eye in a fight is a lost easier to respond to than when a student calls another a bad name on the playground.

Regardless of how educators think about the power of words, schools and places where physical activity takes place mirror our society and culture. Whether explicit through the creation of rules and regulations or implicit through the hidden curriculum, values are transmitted to students in schools. It's assumed that these values will help socialize students into becoming productive citizens who will positively contribute to a democratic society. Obviously then, it's vitally important for schools to create and maintain an appropriate climate where students are free from being verbally marginalized.

It's unsettling to be reminded of sobering past events, but April 20th of this year marks 15 years since the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado. This is not the place to rehash debates about who or what was to blame for this tragedy. However, since the incident, one issue discussed at length was the verbal harassment prevalent among students in the school for a number of years and the failure of teachers and administrators to proactively address these tensions.

Columbine is just one sad reminder that educators should be diligent in identifying and mapping out specific strategies for decreasing verbal pollution beyond listing mere rules such as "Respect one another." From my experiences I've found that verbal pollution is generally conveyed through words and comments that are focused on one or more of the following:

  • Sex - comments, gestures, actions or attention that focuses on a person's appearance, body parts or sexual orientation.
  • Ability - comments, gestures, actions or attention that denotes a perceived individuals’ deficiency or lack of skill.
  • Ethnicity or Race - comments, gestures, actions or attention that range from the ill-considered to deliberate. These include remarks on skin color, manner of speaking, ethnic grouping, or religious and cultural practices.
  • Economic Status - comments, gestures, actions or attention that is indicative of a focus on an individual's economic status. These remarks often equate a person's value with their economic and social standing.
  • Profanity - words that are generally considered in society to be impolite and offensive. These words debase and imply strong emotion.

Studies over the past few decades have theorized that these types of verbal pollution are commonly linked to eating disorders, low self-esteem and efficacy, and depression. Verbal pollution can also affect our students' motivation to learn and the effectiveness of our instruction. What then are appropriate strategies for educators to consider to reduce verbal pollution? Here are some suggestions:

  • Be aware and get educated - verbal pollution can take place anywhere. If observed, intervene immediately to stop it. Simply, if you hear something, say something. Follow guidelines to document such behaviors and pay attention to trends.
  • Be sure that you are setting a good example - students, participants, and athletes may look to the person in a leadership role as a model for behavior. Teachers must set the example for behaviors they want their students to emulate. Our words should be as good as our deeds.
  • Challenge offenders - challenging offenders to explain why they are using derogatory statements or words can cause them to reflect on why they incorporate such language. But refuse to enable offenders by letting them use common statements such as "it was only a joke" and trying to minimize the situation.
  • Examine your classroom practices - examine your instructional environment and plans, lessons and activities to determine whether or not you promote a climate of respect and cooperation. Often, verbal pollution occurs because of the creation (whether intended or not) of hierarchies. People often bully because they don't perceive everyone as equal. Collaborative classroom activities may work better than ones that identify winners and losers.

In ending, I'd like to further elaborate on the specific points of (a) the importance of staying abreast of current trends, and (b) engaging in critical examinations of issues as they happen. In recent months, the National Football League (NFL) has discussed the use of the "N-Word," written here to describe a common ethnic slur so pejorative that it cannot be written here in this article. While this is occurring, one NFL team located in the nation's capital (The Washington Redskins), continues to be named after a term that is generally accepted as offensive, insulting and taboo in describing Native Americans.

Despite people's opinions and arguments on Freedom of Speech, the origins of many words are oppressive, harkening back to a time where subjugation of groups by the dominant culture of the time were acceptable and in many cases celebrated. Considering that many of us have provided youth programming with the resources provided by the NFL (i.e. Play 60), it's clear that the topic of verbal pollution is complex. In reflecting on what this could mean for our professional lives and the impact on the people we influence, it's perhaps appropriate to reflect on a quote by the literary giant George Orwell, "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."

Fisher, E. J. (2008). The N-Word: reducing verbal pollution in schools. Clearing House, 81(6),

Fuller, B., Gulbrandson, K., & Herman-Ukasick, B. (2013). Bully prevention in the physical
education classroom. Strategies, 26(6), 3-8.

Biography: Brian Culp is an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology, School of Physical Education and Tourism Management at Indiana University Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI). Dr. Culp holds a BSED in Health and Physical Education from the University of Georgia, a MS in Sport Administration from Georgia State University, and a Doctorate of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Georgia. Brian's research interests include culturally responsive pedagogy, teacher education, semiotics, and examining cultural barriers to physical activity.

Brian received the Hally Beth Poindexter Young Scholar Award from NAKPEHE, was selected to serve on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), and has received the Mabel Lee and Social Justice and Diversity Young Professional Awards AAHPERD. In the summers of 2010 and 2011 Brian led study abroad groups to East Africa to promote community health and physical activity, and recently participated in a Fulbright-Hays Scholarship program to Kenya studying democracy and education while involving himself in several service related projects. He has written extensively, and is a regular conference presenter. Brian holds dual licenses as a K-12 physical educator in the state of Georgia and Indiana. Dr. Culp currently taught courses in teacher education pedagogy, and can be contacted at

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