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

George Floyd protests
Photo credit: Vox

“I can’t breathe,” has now become the rallying chant for the Black Lives Matter massive protests in major cities around the world. It has also become the slogan being used 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 formed part of 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 – 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 you 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.

An example from a previous incident will do…

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.

"I can't breathe" - an idiomatic expression.

I can’t breatheAnother perspective

Admittedly, in both cases of Gardener in 2014 and Floyd in 2020, the words “I can’t breathe,” were spoken in negative circumstances (of mistreatment).

So it’s understandable that the expression is now being used in speaking against such social vices as racism, police brutality, inequality in the society, etc, not only in America, but also in different parts of the world.

But do you know there are times the phrase “I can’t breathe” might not have a negative connotation?

Stay with me as I name a few good circumstances where ‘I can’t breathe” doesn’t have a negative meaning:

  • When you are momentarily in the presence of someone you love or idolise and you have the feeling of being out of breath;
  • When you receive a gift that meets or surpasses your expectation, leaving you gasping for words;
  • When you travel to beautiful or exotic places or the first time that seem to take away your breath;
  • When you receive a piece of cheerful news that leaves you speechless.
  • When you receive an offer that is beyond your imagination, and you carried away to high altitude with less oxygen;
  • When you…(you can add to the list).

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 that phrase 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.

Therefore it becomes 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 2020 filming of the American Idol reality show 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 (below) on the set of the American Idol show. And pay attention to see where she said “I can’t breathe…”

In conclusion, although “I can’t breathe” has become a vexed issue in today’s world, the phrase has not always been a negative expression.

And without undermining the Black Lives Matter Movement, it is okay to observe that “I can’t breathe” is a valid idiomatic expression in English Language meaning to be shocked with pleasure or surprise – without the negative connotation the phrase has now been associated with.

Thank you for reading and please let me know what you think in the comment section.

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24 thoughts on ““I Can’t Breathe” Hasn’t Always Been A Negative Expression

  1. John Arthur Oct 20, 2020 / 12:09 pm

    Hi Victor,

    You, and I, can breathe slowly in and out as we practice Jesus’ method of breath meditation. This will calm our spirit, give us peace and enable us to love other persons (including our enemies). Have a wonderful day!

    Your internet friend,
    John Arthur


    • Victors' Corner Oct 20, 2020 / 2:44 pm

      Yes, I can breathe because I have the breath of God in me. Hallelujah.


      • John Arthur Oct 20, 2020 / 9:51 pm

        Thank goodness that you’ve seen the light, at last. Praise compassion, peace and kindness and the breath theology of Jesus.


        • Victors' Corner Oct 20, 2020 / 11:28 pm

          Of course I have seen the light. Jesus is my light and the light of the world. Whoever does not follow His light walks in darkness.


          • John Arthur Oct 21, 2020 / 10:25 am

            Amen! His breath is the breath of life that brings light to the world, and Jesus’ theology of the breath shows us that the breath of compassion, kindness and peace will create more peaceable and kinder relationships between people.

            My you continue to have a wonderful day, Victor! Breathe on your bible, slowly in and slowly out as you read it devotionally. May your breath theology uplift, inspire and encourage all the people that you meet on your life’s journey.

            Your internet friend,
            John Arthur


            • Victors' Corner Oct 21, 2020 / 11:46 am

              What I preach is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ., – Jesus as the only Saviour of the world. Have a nice day.


              • John Arthur Oct 22, 2020 / 4:22 am

                Those who are led by the breath of God are the children of God. So those who are empowered by the holy breath, baptized in the holy breath, and are yielded to, and led by the holy breath, proclaim the good news of the reign of God in Christ Jesus and yield the fruit of the holy breath: love, joy peace etc. Jesus is the only saviour of the world and sometimes he saves (only) by Jesus through Buddha, other persons of other religions and no religion by turning them into compassionate and peaceful persons who love others.

                Have a great day! brother.

                from John Arthur


                • Victors' Corner Oct 22, 2020 / 6:59 am

                  Let me just quote the following verses of Scripture for you:
                  For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
                  John 3:16‭-‬18 KJV


                  • John Arthur Oct 22, 2020 / 10:27 am

                    John 1:9 says this: “The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.” (NRSV). The footnote has an alternative rendering thus: “He was the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world”. So this could read that Jesus Christ the true light was coming into the world (first century CE) and he is the light that enlightens everyone or it could read that Jesus is the true light and that he enlightens everyone who comes into the world.

                    Hence people who have never heard of Jesus of Nazareth explicitly nevertheless receive the true light whether it be through Buddha, or other religions or no religion at all. The true light is the light of love and peace. It is the light of compassion healing mercy and loving kindness that we see in Jesus. it is God’s reign of shalom: peace, healing, harmony and wholeness which the bible calls salvation.

                    When it says in John 3 that he that believes not is condemned already, the word condemn means judged. but remember that earlier in this same chapter Jesus said: “No one can enter the reign of God without being born of water and the breath (pneuma in Greek).” To be born of the breath is to be born from above. So there have been, and still are, many people in non Christian lands that have never heard of Jesus, yet the light of Jesus shines through the holy breath and can enlighten them through Jesus’ method of breath meditation and this occurs through breath meditation practiced by Buddhists and some in other religions as well as those of no religion.

                    Have a wonderful day! Victor.

                    from John Arthur


                    • Victors' Corner Oct 22, 2020 / 12:23 pm

                      God revealed Himself to the world through His Son Jesus Christ, not through Buddha as you claimed.

                      That’s why Jesus is the only way to salvation.

                      Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.
                      Acts 4:12 KJV


                    • John Arthur Oct 24, 2020 / 10:39 am

                      Hi Victor,

                      Buddha can help you breathe better. Praise Buddha! Atheists and agnostics breathe the best, especially those who are humanists. Praise atheism and agnosticism!


                    • Victors' Corner Oct 24, 2020 / 11:34 am

                      Buddha is dead. Jesus is alive forever. I chose to follow a living being. Now and forever.


                    • John Arthur Oct 24, 2020 / 11:58 am

                      Buddha is dead but his method of breath meditation still lives on. Whether a person is dead or not what matters is loving-kindness and this can be enhanced through Buddha and Jesus’ theology of breath meditation.


                    • Victors' Corner Oct 24, 2020 / 12:03 pm

                      It’s about this life alone, but the life after death. Jesus is the only One that promises eternal security in the hereafter. All other ways leads to a dead end.

                      A dead man cannot save you so Buddha cannot save you. Accept Jesus now as your Lord and personal Saviour so that you will be saved.


                    • John Arthur Oct 24, 2020 / 9:34 pm

                      But isn’t my saviour (one who makes us whole) the breath? The breath could be your saviour also. Except you are born of the breath, you cannot enter the reign of God.


                    • Victors' Corner Oct 25, 2020 / 7:16 am

                      Your Saviour is one who forgives your sins and delivers you from God’s eternal judgement.

                      If that Saviour is not the sinless Son of God, Jesus Christ, then He is no Saviour.


                    • John Arthur Oct 25, 2020 / 11:44 pm

                      How do you know that Jesus was sinless? Didn’t he have the “hots” for Mary Magdalene? After all, wasn’t Jesus fully human (and in the 97% of males that are heterosexual)? Or was Jesus a human with same-sex tendencies? If Jesus didn’t have sexual desire of any kind, then he was not fully human.

                      The Greek verb sozo which means to “be saved” also means “to be made whole”. So a Saviour is someone who makes us whole. Doesn’t this mean that breath meditation which Buddha and Jesus both taught can make us whole?

                      Salvation has nothing to do with escaping the so-called wrath of God which preachers of fear believe is coming. Preaching psychological terrorism can never make anyone whole and can thus never bring salvation.


                    • Victors' Corner Oct 26, 2020 / 7:13 am

                      If you believe that Jesus sinned, you have believe wrongly. The Bible teaches that Jesus was tempted in every way (including sexually) but He never sinned.

                      “For we don’t have a high priest who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but” one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin.” Hebrew 4:15

                      Read the line again: tempted as we are, which shows His humanity, but didn’t sin.


                    • John Arthur Oct 27, 2020 / 11:06 am

                      Isn’t the epistle to the Hebrews a forgery? Maybe it’s just religious propaganda without being a forgery. How can any human being be “sinless”? We are all fallible. Because Jesus loved people, doesn’t love cover a multitude of “sins”. Didn’t he have the “hots” for Mary Magdalene?


                    • Victors' Corner Oct 27, 2020 / 2:45 pm

                      Neither Hebrews nor any party of the Bible were forged. To believe otherwise is to have been deceived.

                      You are right, all men are fallible,. That’s why we need a sinless Saviour. Only Jesus Christ that bill.


                  • John Arthur Oct 27, 2020 / 11:37 am

                    What happens if you believe that God is love and only love? If you believe that God is a personal, relational and social being whose nature is unconditional, others-centred, self-giving, community-forming and life-affirming compassion, healing-mercy and loving-kindness and that everlastingly, then wouldn’t you read the bible differently from the way you do? You seem to be a Fundamentalist. Get with the strength and become a progressive Christian.


                    • Victors' Corner Oct 27, 2020 / 2:49 pm

                      God is love yes. God is merciful, yes. God is our Father, yes.

                      But don’t forget God is holy. God is a God of justice. And we all are accountable to him.


                    • John Arthur Oct 29, 2020 / 11:11 am

                      God’s holiness is a compassionate and loving holiness, not one that burns anyone in hell forever for finite sins committed in finite time by finite people. God’s Justice is a compassionate justice and is restorative, not punitive. God is not angry with people but is opposed to evil. He seeks to bring people into a compassionate relationship with himself, if he exists. He doesn’t burn people in hell as some sort of moral monster. If such a god does burn people, then he is not worthy of worship. Such an evil god would lack compassion and kindness.


                    • Victors' Corner Oct 29, 2020 / 10:21 pm

                      God’s holiness also necessitates His justice. Those who reject His love will not escape His judgement. If your beliefs fall short of that, think again.


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