Words have meanings. Just as well because otherwise we’d have no need of them and I, for one, would be out of a job.
So it’s important how we use them, and those in positions of power and influence need to be particularly astute about which ones they choose and how they employ them.
Congressman Richard Neal, the special envoy Joe Biden sent over to knock heads together on the Northern Ireland Protocol, used the wrong one at the worst of times last week.
There was no malice intended but his choice of the term ‘planter’ when he could have said unionist or even loyalist was not only a touch gauche, but revealing too.
It was very much the sort of language the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States employed at the back end of the nineteenth century, but few have since.
Neal is very much a product of an Irish-American take on the old sod, long frozen in aspic.
It might still sell in DC and Boston, but it doesn’t have sea legs.
History explained in simple binaries has a certain appeal for those who want to understand just a little and not hang around.
If there are true Gaels who have been dispossessed – and Irish America loves them – then you have to have planters who dispossessed them. There is no denying that the history of this country, as many others, has been defined by colonisation and plantation, but there is always nuance. More grey than it suits us to admit. Using loaded, pejorative terms blinds us to them.
The word planter, as it is generally defined in a historical context, lazily assumes all those who came to Ulster in the 17th century were gifted confiscated Catholic land.
But many arrived as labourers, traders, sailors and servants from southern Scotland and the north of England.
As they always had and would.
Then, with a nod and a wink from nature, they intermarried, sometimes across religious boundaries.
Trace the bloodline of many such families back 30-odd generations and you will find a heady mixture of all sorts who, because of the name they now carry or a religion they were baptised into, are lazily assumed to be the beneficiaries of the great land grab.
Which helps explain why Neal’s use of this quaint word was not only unhelpful but, as far as explaining the past goes, worse than useless.
Loyalists love to see themselves as riding into the Battle of the Boyne on the back of King Billy’s white steed, while manly Gaels fancy their ancestors hurled with Cú Chulainn in the Cooley Mountains.
But then identity is generally based on the ludicrous myth of ethnic purity and undiluted lineage.
All nationalisms depend on it.
But truth is we are all only mongrels, the sum of our disparate parts.
As nationalist peacemaker John Hume was wont to point out, difference is an accident of birth.
His own ‘planter’ surname a clue to why he was so absolutely right.