Empower: the secret behind an overused word
Words are like reality stars.
They have their 15 minutes of fame.
As a lifelong logophile, I watch mindfully as words are pushed into and then out of favor. I pay close attention to what word is suddenly every marketers’ or headline writer’s favorite. Then I empathize when that once-dignified word is tossed aside for some sexier collection of consonants and vowels.
Lately, I’ve been noticing the word “empower” is having a moment.
It makes me happy and sad. It’s a word I fell for in my younger days.
I leaned into “empower” as a word, as an idea, when I was in college, learning about the minority experience, volunteering in working poor neighborhoods of Phoenix as I was taking courses on social psychology, cultural development and women’s studies.
I loved “empower” because she spoke of a rising. To me, she connoted a rebirth of something inherent and dynamic. She felt very feminine in her spirit.
When I look at her definition today, I see those who have made logophilia their profession define “empower” as “to give official authority to.” That’s the definition marked with a number 1.
In the context of the late 1990s, I felt empower was being used in the sense of empowering ourselves, not waiting for official power. It was a bold and delicious – and not new — idea. It encoded the idea that people who traditionally did not have access to power (or who were grudgingly given limited, controlled and conditional access), could award themselves the gift of momentum, of right, of human entitlement.
But it was the third definition (the second is “enable”) that truly caught my eye and heart. Ms. Merriam Webster told me empower means to promote the self-actualization or influence of.
That is a definition I can get fully behind.
And it’s a meaning that makes sense in the context I am seeing the word come up and out into the common parlance.
I have been seeing “empower” applied frequently to feminine endeavors – whether they be women-led businesses with social good components or creative leadership, women-centered movements or support organizations or more feminine ways of leading and changing the world.
To me, the word empower carries with her a usurping quality. Not always directly and harshly designed to overthrow current power, but to present a new (and ancient), more productive and efficient way of wielding it.
The opposite of empower is to disqualify, to demean, to diminish. It is about exercising power over.
Empower is about embracing power with.
Empower is about embracing power with.
Sadly, power with is a form of power we have been taught to be wary of. Both men and women have learned to be skeptical of working together, of seeing competitors as sources of inspiration and collaboration, of giving power to anyone else. We were taught to hold on to our power, possessively, and to use it in the context that was most sanctioned by the status quo. I can think of dozens of times in my professional career or personal life when someone wanted to help me, to share their power via their insight or experience, with me, and I turned them away. I was insecure about my own power then, and hoarding the idea I had to have power over my own ideas in that moment. Or I was afraid I might be taken advantage of, hurt, or screwed over, something that, again sadly, was imprinted on me as a girl as a form of protection. And I believed to a great extent. While I was taught the world was safe, I was also taught to always be mindful of my vulnerabilities, my weaknesses, to protect me from being harmed by a man more powerful than me.
As a culture, we have been taught that to win we must defeat, and demoralize, our opponents. Be it war or football or business, this was the ethic. Then, once that opponent is decimated, we get to come in with our rightfully earned power over to tell those ailing losers what they have been doing wrong, according to our own precepts and ideas.
What makes me glad about the rising use of empower is that it connotes we are beginning to release those old stories, those power over ways of operating. It tells me we are beginning to see and try out and feel power with.
As a logophile and as a brand strategist, it’s my job to steer my clients away from overused phrases or words.
This is what makes me sad about certain words becoming popular.
Because to me even as the frequent use of “empower” tells a story of our evolving relationship with power, it has begun to be used so commonly that its beautiful, harmonic clarion bell tone is muffled to nearly nothing.
For now, the particular sound of its call to us to self-actualize, to awaken, to rise is perhaps dim, faint, muted from repetition.
The good news, even for a logophile like me, is that words are words. Ultimately they are inert symbols of meaning.
The popularity of words may dull their meaning. And yet.
The spirit and the momentum words embody are alive, active, real.
And they are much more difficult to defeat.