“I Can’t Breathe” Hasn’t Always Had A Negative Expression

“I can’t breathe,” has now become the rallying chant for protests in major cities around the world against social injustices of diverse kinds.

Except you just landed from Mars, you would have heard, read, or seen the words “I can’t breathe” in the media over the past few weeks.

They were the last recorded words of George Floyd who died in May 2020 as a result of the brutality meted out on him on the streets of America by Derek Chauvin, an officer from the Minneapolis Police Department.

You know the story already, don’t you?

In case you missed it, let me rehash it a little.

George Floyd protests
Photo credit: Vox

George Floyd – I can’t breathe

A black man gets arrested by the Police for whatever offense. He is pushed to the ground, hands tied to his back and the back of his neck gruesomely pinned to the ground with the strong knees of one of the four duty Policemen.

The helpless man struggles to breathe on the floor beneath the knee firmly pegged to his neck. Fighting for his dear life he repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe” for as long as eight minutes but the policeman wouldn’t bulge.

In the end, the man was suffocated to death, becoming another victim of Police brutality in America.

But people say, this incident was more than just a police brutality issue. It was racism shamefully being displaced.

Don’t we understand why? Another black American man is hacked to death in the hands of a white police officer – just as it has happened countless times in the past.

The general consensus seems to be that the Floyd killing is another example of the systemic racism deeply ingrained in America’s law enforcement agencies, the Police in particular, who have variously been accused of having a pathological desire to mistreat (read, kill) its black population in the name of enforcing the law.

Source: Wikipedia.org

Eric Gardener – I can’t breathe

The Floyd incident was definitely not the first time the American Police has used lethal force to effect the arrest of African-American offenders. And it was also not the first time that “I can’t breathe” statement has been heard from the lips of someone being manhandled by the Police.

Remember the case of Eric Gardener? He was killed by the Police in 2014 in the process of getting him to submit to arrest.

He too had said, “I can’t breathe” before losing consciousness and eventually dying as a result of the suffocation caused by a policeman’s choke-hold around his neck (pictured above).

In many States around the US, people are now using the words “I Can’t Breathe” to protest the killing of George Floyd. There is a renewed focus on the issue of race relations and the need to stop racism and Police brutality.

Another perspective

Admittedly, in both cases of Gardener in 2014 and Floyd in 2020, “I can’t breathe,” were spoken in negative circumstances (of mistreatment). So it’s understandable when the expression is used in speaking against such social vices as racism, police brutality, inequality in the society, etc.

But do you know there are times the phrase “I can’t breathe” might not have a negative connotation? Stay with me as we name a few good circumstances where ‘I can’t breathe” might not have a negative meaning:

  • When you are momentarily in the presence of someone you love or idolise.
  • When you receive a gift that meets or surpasses your expectation.
  • When you travel to beautiful or exotic places or the first time.
  • When you receive a piece of cheerful news.
  • When you receive an offer that is beyond your imagination.
  • When you …(You can add to the list). I

I just want to point out that “I can’t breathe” doesn’t have to be a negative expression all the time. Is that not why we have the idiomatic expression, to”take one’s breath away” in the English language?

Let’s examine it more closely.

To ‘take ones breath away

When you breathe, you take in oxygen to fuel your body activity. So when you can’t breathe, your brain is deprived of vital oxygen which can be fatal if not corrected. So it’s a cause for concern if you say you can’t breathe (literarily speaking).

But the expression, to “take one’s breath away” has no such negative connotation. According to the dictionary it means to:

Astonish or shock one, with pleasure, surprise, or some other emotion. For example, That beautiful display just takes my breath away. This idiom alludes to the way one holds one’s breath when overcome with sudden emotion.

Courtney Timmons – I can’t breathe

Courtney Timmons on American Idol

Let me conclude this post with the story of 22 years old Courtney Timmons, a security guard from Harris Neck, Georgia, USA. She went for the American Idol filming only to learn that the auditions had ended.

Feeling disappointed, she hung out around the venue as a little consolation for missing out in an opportunity to showcase her singing talent.

However,  she found favour when an officer of the Show spotted her sitting on the street and pitied her. The officer brought Courtney in before the judges who obliged her to sing.

At the end of her short performance, the judges – which included popular American singer, songwriter, composer, multi-instrumentalist, Lionel Richie – gave her a standing ovation and a golden card invitation to Hollywood.

Based on this, Courtney was emotionally “astonished with pleasure” to the point that she had to say, “I can’t breathe…” to express her feeling of excitement and total satisfaction.

You can watch Courtney’s awe-inspiring YouTube video on the set of the American Idol show. And pay attention to see where she said “I can’t breathe…”

Thank you for reading and please let me know what you think.


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