Why had Asher been punished for confusing the words snack and smacks in The Giver?

In The Giver, Asher was punished as a child for confusing the words "snack" and "smack" because the community values precise language. Citizens are required to use precise language at all times, and even exaggerations are prohibited. Jonas mentions that precise language is necessary to ensure that "unintentional lies were never uttered."

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In Lois Lowry's The Giver, the community in which Jonas and Asher live is controlled by authorities and rules down to the smallest details. Young children are especially responsible for learning and using precise language, and their mistakes are rapidly and consistently punished, for the community values exact language so that it can function smoothly. Children are disciplined by a “quick smack across the hands” for minor missteps and “three sharper smacks on the bare legs” for continuing offenses.

When Asher and Jonas were Threes, Asher mixed up the words “snack” and “smack” one day as he was standing in line for his morning snack. The Childcare worker immediately gave him what he said he wanted: a smack. He had to learn the precise language that the community demands and suffer the consequences for not using it. Poor Asher, however, continued to make the same mistake no matter how hard he tried to correct himself, and eventually he simply stopped speaking altogether. A while later he began to speak again, but it took some time for him to regain his confidence.

At the Ceremony of Twelve, the Chief Elder reminds Asher of this incident from his early childhood. Asher cheerfully accepts the memory as well as the Elder's note that, these days, his “corrections and apologies are very prompt,” and he is thrilled by his assignment as Assistant of Assistant Director of Recreation. Apparently, the community's discipline has worked on Asher exactly as it was intended, at least in the eyes of the Chief Elder.

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In the dystopian society set out in such unnerving detail in The Giver, everything has to be ordered in the correct manner. Every last thing in this society, from the weather to how people raise their children, has to be just so.

This also includes language, which has to be used with precision at all times. Unfortunately, not everyone is capable of using language in the way that the authorities want them to. Poor Asher, for example, is forever getting his words mixed-up. He's not helped by the fact that he talks too fast, something he's done ever since he was a toddler.

When it comes to snack time, he says “smack” instead of “snack” when he's waiting in line for his morning treat. “I want my smack!” says Asher, much to the amusement of the other Threes. However, their laughter is nervous because they know all too well that Asher has made what in this society is quite a serious mistake.

Having used imprecise language, Asher must suffer the consequences. He asked for a smack, and now he's going to get one. A childcare worker duly administers his punishment, whacking him across his hands with a discipline wand. A whimpering, cringing Asher promptly corrects himself.

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During the Ceremony of Twelves, the Chief Elder presents Asher with his Assignment. He humorously mentions that Asher was never considered to be an Instructor of Threes before telling a rather disturbing story about his childhood. The Chief Elder recalls Asher's struggles as a child with language acquisition and how difficult it was for him to tell the difference between the words "snack" and "smack." Every time Asher would mistake the words "snack" and "smack," a Childcare specialist would strike him with a "discipline wand." Asher continued to mistake the words and suffered the painful punishment on a regular basis, which left marks on his legs. Eventually, Asher stopped speaking altogether until he attained greater precision with language.

The reader gains significant insight into the culture of Jonas's community from Asher's story, and many readers would surely find corporal punishment inflicted on a toddler disturbing, unnecessary, and traumatic. Asher's punishment highlights the importance the community places on using precise language. Precise language is required in Jonas's strict community to ensure that unintentional lies are never told, which helps maintain a stable, safe environment. In Jonas's community, exaggerations are not even tolerated and he was once chastised for saying he was "starving" instead of using the word "hungry." Precise language is simply another way the government controls the citizens in Jonas's mundane community.

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Asher is punished for confusing his words because precision of language is very important in the community.

Jonas’s community tightly controls every aspect of daily life.  From a young age, children are taught proper behavior and social conventions.  They are shown how to behave politely.  One aspect of this involves how to speak to others.  At the Ceremony of Twelve when stories of each advancing Eleven are told, Asher’s story is particularly poignant because it is considered funny by the community but not by most readers.  The story describes how Asher used to confuse his words when he was a toddler, and the community responded by beating him.

When Asher was three years old he confused the words “snack” and “smack.”  One day he accidentally asked for a “smack” instead of a “snack”

The other Threes, including Jonas, had laughed nervously. "Snack!...You meant snack, Asher!" But the mistake had been made. And precision of language was one of the most important tasks of small children. Asher had asked for a smack. (Ch. 7)

So they smacked him.  And it continued until the poor boy stopped talking.  While the story was shared as something funny, it indicates a lack of compassion and a strong commitment to doctrine.  The community is harsh.  There is no room for error, and there is no room for love.  Even later, at the Ceremony of Twelve, they see nothing wrong with what happened.  The Chief Elder does not acknowledge Asher’s trauma.

"For a while," the Chief Elder said, relating the story, "we had a silent Asher! But he learned." (Ch. 7)

There was no reason to hit Asher for saying the wrong word in the first place, let alone to do it over and over until the child was so traumatized that he stopped talking.  It demonstrates the harsh reality of a community unable to forgive, and foreshadows even harsher punishments like release.  We later learn that difference of any kind is not tolerated, and difference can get you killed in this community.  Asher is our window into this reality.

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