Is ‘Just’ A Four-Letter Word?

The  word ‘just’ is a word that merits great caution and discretion.

I’m not talking about the term for fairness and equity, as in “a just world” or “his penalty was just.”  That is a concept we had better continue placing in the forefront of our decisions and policies.  Nor am I referring to ‘just’ meaning ‘exactly’ as in “that is just what I needed.”  There are at least two other meanings I have no problem with: ‘very recently’ as in “I’ve just seen it in the paper” or ‘barely, by a little’ as in “inflation fell to just over 4 percent.”  Such a versatile word for just four letters!

And this is precisely the usage to which I refer: ‘just’ as in ‘merely,’ ‘only,’ ‘simply’, ‘no more than.’  ‘Just’ as in “It’s just a headache” or “He’s just going through a phase.”  It is a word of diminution, lessening or curtailing the extent or impact of something.  In other words, while you might think of something as significant, ‘just’ indicates that it is in fact not that significant.

Herein lies the danger.  When we engage the word ‘just’ in this definition, we are telling someone we don’t think something that might appear significant to them is in fact so significant.  We are claiming they have made a bigger deal out of something than they should have.  Sometimes this is helpful.  If I am a doctor and my patient thinks they have cancer and I let them know it is ‘just a cyst,’ I have afforded them great relief.  If your boss isn’t sure whether to assign a major project to you and you tell her, ‘just say the word,’ that boss’s confidence in assigning you the project now is boosted.

But other times it is not helpful.  Let’s look at some examples of these:

“Just sign your name.”  If you’re a parent of a public school student, you’ve heard this before.  Guzman comes home from the first day of school with a stack of papers and tells you all you need to do is sign them.  What he is forgetting is that your signature indicates not only acknowledgement but agreement to whatever terms are stated in the text above it.  You are liable for what you sign.  What in Guzman’s mind should take you 45 seconds may take you 10 – 15 minutes or more if you are to exercise due diligence.

“Just open another tab.” As I have assisted my elderly mother with her laptop, I have learned how cruel my ‘just’s can be.  With such a statement, I have implied that an action that may take quite a while to figure out – if she can even discern what the cyber version of a ‘tab’ is – should only take a second.  Year after year, I have kept up with the evolving technology, language, and logic that use of a laptop necessitates as it has evolved.  She hasn’t.  But with my four-letter word, I have rendered her ignorant or incompetent or both.

“Just change the password.”  I don’t think I need to explain this one: the incessant work of hackers has caused the security of our private information to become an industry of its own such that this presumably simple operation can easily make us go mad.

“Just get over it.” Many will recall the anger incurred when a friend or loved one cannot seem to grasp the depth of your pain or the breadth of its cause and believes that a simple cognitive leap can somehow bypass weeks, months, or years of grief and coming to terms with loss.  ‘Getting over’ something is usually a process and such a process should never have a ‘just’ thrown into its path.

“It was just a joke.”  If someone is confronting you on it, then it probably wasn’t.  Not to them.  And truth be told, humor often disguises real feelings and sentiments that we want to say but know it wouldn’t be appropriate or safe to do so.  If you said something that offended, downplaying it with a ‘just’ only deepens the offense.

“That’s just the way he is.”  If ‘just’ diminishes the significance of something, then it can be an implicit request for toleration of something that shouldn’t be tolerated.

“They just need to be able to read.”  If you have been following my blog recently, you have by now learned that the task of bringing pandemic-stricken 2nd graders into the realm of readers in a year’s time is no small task, and not one that we can presume that a school system, even one as well-funded as MCPS, can pull off.  It takes teachers, it takes parents, it takes volunteers.  It will take a community.

The next time you find yourself using the ‘j’ word to in any way lessen the significance of something, take care to note who you are addressing, what is their experience, is it really as simple or easy to them as it is to you, and what will be the impact on them to make this sound as insubstantial as you make it out to be.  Make sure your ‘just’ is in fact just.

And if this word ever gets used on you in an ‘injust’ way, be sure to stop and help the diminuator to reflect on what they are diminuating.  Broaden their perspective.

Let’s make sure our ‘just’s are just helpful, nothing more.


  1. Vickie Baldwin says

    I especially try not to use that word as it is so minimizing – and I think women tend to use it as a way to state rheirnoponions without ruffling male feathers. I still find myself using the word, even though i try not to, with other women – but i think about how I am using more than i ever did before I realized it’s power.

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