The Words we Choose: Definition of a Prank

This blog isn’t a place where I talk about politics.  And that’s not what I want to talk about today.

 I want to talk about the language we use and the message it sends.

 Specifically, I want to talk about the use of the word “prank” to describe what presidential candidate Mitt Romney is accused of doing to a classmate at his prep school years ago.  The news, splashed all over the Washington Post website today and spread far and wide online, quotes several of Romney’s former classmates in describing an alleged attack on a student who was different.

Note the use of the words “prank” and “prankster.”

According to the story, the kid who was victimized had returned from spring break with his hair dyed blond and hanging over one eye. The sources claim that Romney said, “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” Later, the sources say, Romney took a pair of scissors and led a gang of kids to find the boy with the blond hair, then held him down and cut his hair while he screamed for help.

Romney said in an interview today he doesn’t remember that incident. I wasn’t there, and I don’t know if that’s true, if it ever happened, or if the story will have an impact on Romney’s campaign.

What I do know is this: The act described in that news report is not a prank.

I’ve played pranks. I’m the person who put the sign on the copy machine at school one April Fools Day a few years back, announcing that it had been reprogrammed to be voice-activated and that copies should be made with a loud, clear request: “20 COPIES, PLEASE, DOUBLED SIDED!”  Would-be copiers were advised to try again, more loudly, if it didn’t work the first time, and not to forget the “please,” as the machine would not function without it.  The secretaries in the office were laughing all day.

The word prank implies fun. It implies innocent and harmless. It implies that nobody gets hurt.  We desperately need to stop using that word to describe acts of cruelty that target vulnerable kids. Doing so excuses the inexcusable and offers our kids of today a license to bully without repercussions.

Nobody wants to be a bully. Ask any kid, “Is it okay to be a bully? Do you like people who are mean?”  They’ll say no. But pranks…ah, pranks are another story.  And if the line between the two is all hazy and gray – even when the adults talk about it, even when the Washington Post writes about it – well, maybe shoving the short kid into a locker or targeting that guy with the weird hair is okay.

It’s only a prank, after all.

No. It’s not.

Choose a better word. Cruelty. bullying, and assault are a few that come to mind.  But please stop calling it a prank.  Continuing to do so is irresponsible and dangerous. And whatever our politics are, we owe our kids better than that.

12 Replies on “The Words we Choose: Definition of a Prank

  1. Well said, Kate! Calling this a “prank” is like . . . well, like calling waterboarding “enhanced interrogation” – it is a subtle kind of lying to make something awful seem more acceptable.

    The last thing we need is another swaggering bully in the White House!

    1. Beyond the political issue of Romney, though… Don’t you think this is a cultural thing? NBC Nightly news just used the word “prank” too. I don’t think they were trying to support Romney; I think we are holding onto an old and dangerous “boys will be boys” attitude. I really wish people on both sides of the political fence could agree that this cultural euphemism for bullying is sending kids the wrong message.

  2. The incident you described is not the “prank” to which the story is referring. The alleged incident involving Lauber is what WaPo referred to as a “troubling incident.” The title of the story is called “Mitt Romney’s prep school classmates recall pranks, but also troubling incidents.” The pranks to which the story later refers are actual pranks.

    1. I appreciate that on the actual page of the news story, the words “troubling incident” are used. But the home page headline said “Romney’s pranks had edge,” (see photo) implying that this was one of those “pranks” with a sharp edge. And as someone who worked in journalism years ago, I do understand that reporters don’t write the headlines, so it’s not even the reporter I’m calling out here – it’s our larger culture that continues to use the word “prank” to refer to serious incidents of bullying. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t consider leading a blind person to walk into a wall a “prank” either.

  3. I’m with you. Pranks was what they were called back when Romney was in school, but the times have thankfully changed and adults should modify their language accordingly.

    The thing that struck me is that Romney had no memory of the incident. That’s all too typical behavior from bullies. Their victims are the ones who bear the emotional scars.

    By the way, Kate, I couldn’t find your email or access it automatically from your website. I wanted to request the revision table from your presentation at the New England SCBWI conference.

  4. Kate,

    You make a great point, and I agree it is not even specifically about this particular report but more about the way such reports are framed. I saw the “schoolboy pranks” framework used at least half a dozen times in various media outlets and found it very disturbing. The words we use matter. Well done.

  5. Amen!

    Pranking, voter fraud (like the kind people did in my state of NC when they voted for Obama twice), Gay Activist Dan Savage’s bullying of Christian high school students at a journalism conference, and using chauvinistic, demeaning and hypocritical language towards women in politics. . . it’s all wrong, and let’s stand up together loud and clear against the purveyors of such SIN. No language will erase what it is to God. . . sin.

    Help to be careful not to be hypocritical in our protection of all people. Not just the people who agree with us.