Stop overusing the term ‘bully’

When a word gets overused or misused it loses its meaning and then the best thing for it is to go away for awhile, recover and make its return after time has returned its definition to it. “Awesome” is probably our most commonly abused word casualty at this point (The Book of Awesome should really just be called The Book of Kind-of-Nice, right?), having usurped “literally,” but it is far from being the most dangerous. Our most dangerous and destructive offender has got to be something with a slight and confusing darkness to its core; something that can be misconstrued or distorted from a state of being marginally wicked into a full five-alarm emergency. Our most dangerous word casualty is the word “bully.”

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As a student attending the University of Manitoba’s faculty of education I was instructed to understand the word bully to mean an intentional and intentionally repeated pattern of abuse from an individual or group directed towards another individual or group. This is an incredibly broad definition that has held true from my studies in Manitoba to my years living in Alberta. In 2008, the Alberta Teacher’s Association Communications Coordinator, Dennis Theobald, a man whose name describes my greatest fear, wrote an article for administrators that constituted bullying as being any harassment or abuse regardless of form or motivation. This is a definition that encompasses everything from gossiping to pushing skinny kids into lockers to the unspeakable acts of rape and systematic abuse that we’ve seen in Ohio and Newfoundland. As you may have noticed, some of these things are not like the others.

As we actively promote anti-bullying campaigns in schools and media we must narrow our focus and begin to define our terms. All forms of harassment should not be clumped together as though any one of these acts is comparable to any other. If gossiping about a classmate’s hair is bullying, then texting pictures of the girl you roofied after you’ve removed all of her clothes isn’t. These acts are not comparable and the distinction between them needs to be made clear. Every single student makes interpersonal mistakes at some point during their academic career. From throwing a younger student into a dumpster during a team hazing to picking fights with those in a rival social circle, every student has harassed or abused. This is part of growing up, it’s part of the trial and error process that defines adolescence and it’s unfair to associate the student who pushes past the boundaries of good taste or acceptable behaviour as a part of their teenage growth with the student who behaves like a dangerous sociopath. Teenagers need to be listened to and nurtured, and hurling slanderous labels around does nothing of that sort. Frankly, it’s language that fails more people than it helps.

So here, then, is my suggestion: let’s stop using the word “bully” for six months. We’ll continue to take harassment and abuse seriously. We’ll continue to do our level best at providing our students with school environments that are safe and caring.  What we’ll also do is stretch ourselves linguistically in order to refine our language and our understanding. After all is said and done, after alternatives have been found and used and made routine, maybe we’ll decide that our newer broader and harsher understanding of bullying is correct and we’ll continue to use the word to describe everything from friend exclusion to violent murder. But I don’t think we will. I think that we’ll fall back to a more conventional understanding of the term and use it to describe the mistakes that kids make during the years where their brains are almost literally half-baked. I think we’ll come to a point where we describe the harsher acts with harsher words instead of something closer to a euphemism that fails to belie the seriousness of some acts while simultaneously overstating the gravity and certainly the maliciousness of others. I think that we’ll evolve our perception into something kinder, more nuanced and empathetic. I think that we’ll become greater.

George Carlin once said, “We do think in language and so the quality of our thoughts and ideas can only be as good as the quality of our language.” I guess what I’m trying to say is, he was right. He was right and it’s time for us to step up our game.

Theodore Wiebe is a writer living in Calgary. You can follow more of his important nonsense on Twitter (@TheodoreWiebe) or Tumblr (

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