The power of words


They can propel us forward or stop us in our tracks. They can shift our mood, seduce a potential mate or deflate an ego. Words can reshape our entire world. The removal of the word ‘human’ from the category of ‘nature’ has damaged our relationship with all those organisms that we share the earth with. This is further impacted by our inability to understand non-human methods of expression. Would we hunt, imprison and harvest non-human animals so quickly if they could plead their cases in a language we could comprehend? Words are seriously powerful Ju-Ju.

Some of us realise and utilise this power. We pick our words with care, and then use them as creatively as possible. Others seem to believe there is a tax per sentence, a metaphysical cost to each conversation. Even this difference in attitudes towards words is important. A friend recently explained to me that she believes that differing language capabilities might well have impacted on her relationship with her brother, and I know my own relationships are the strongest with the people I can chat to for hours.

Even knowing all this though, I sometimes fail to give words the respect they deserve. Occasionally I’ll drop a sentence with little thought or consideration, and then redden as I watch disappointment well up in someone’s eyes. I once shared a few reunion drinks with an old friend at a dark den of wine-consumption. As we gathered our coats one of our fellow wine tasters told us what a great couple we made. We were both quick to point out that we were just friends, but as we left my words failed me. They didn’t disappear altogether, if only. Instead I managed to use them to undo us. I took her arm, chuckled again and said ‘we could be a hilarious couple’. That sentence was the end of ten years of singing David Grey at the top of our lungs, sharing post-relationship-breakup insights into love, and showing Wellington how not to dance. I’m not sure whether I’m more upset at the poor choice of words, or my once-friend’s reaction to them. But wherever the fault lies (and no doubt it’s somewhere between the two of us) I miss our shared guffaws and occasional tears, and I realise more than ever the power of a sentence to destroy something beautiful.

My words aren’t just important for their ability to communicate information to others though. They also have an effect on the way I see my life, and on the decisions I make for myself. The way I feel about things is revealed in the way I talk about them. If I’m unhappy with a person then the language I use to describe them reflects that. What I’ve also found though is that the reverse of this is also true: The way I talk about things affects the way I feel about them. If I continually refer to myself as a fat and incapable then I reduce the likelihood of my getting up early to go for a bike ride. If I put myself down when someone gives me a compliment, then that compliment is undone, and I may also hurt the person who granted me their uplifting thoughts. The words I use can act as a step up into somewhere brighter, or a step down into somewhere darker.

The words I receive are just as important the ones I give. There are so many sources, from romance novels to WikiLeaks, and each time I pay them attention they have the potential to alter the way I see the world. So I need to be selective in where I draw my information from, and to maintain a degree of skepticism. Over the years I’ve found that  it’s important to supplement this library of influences with something far more evocative, far more intimate and thought-provoking. Conversation.

Languages develop in order to exchange information, and it’s this through this trafficking of words that I most readily grow new ideas and transform old ones. I have never learnt as much from university texts, Hemingway’s ‘Old Man of the Sea’, or the Quran, as I have from long talks with fascinating people. I learnt of the ability of a death to transcend even the most carefully prepared defences from an oncological nurse from Tasmania. I had to confront my ideas about gun control in the United States after talking with the people who had lived through violent confrontations and fought back. And I learnt of the ongoing effects of the holocaust as I journeyed to a bunk room in Auschwitz with an Australian girl whose grandfather had survived three years within. She translated as we followed a Jewish school group through the eerie grey work camp, shuddering at the rooms filled with ghost children’s shoes. I could entwine my reactions with hers, and I both grew and shrank a little over that soul disrupting couple of hours. Words. Are. Powerful.

As a writer I aim to put my words in front of as many people as I can. I aim to entertain, inspire and occasionally confront. I understand that there is a degree of responsibility within this, but at least I can edit my responses before they’re published. It’s the words I swap with people every day that I need to ensure that I’m mindful of. If I take care to communicate in ways that lift both me and those I spend time with then I should never have to lose a friendship over a misunderstanding again.


One thought on “The power of words”

  1. I disagree here, at least with the magnitude of the essay. Of course words are important, but one conflates all the other forms of communication with words when discussing the impact of this phrase or that off-handed remark.

    Words and language are signposts to what we think. They mark important places on the map and they’re an effective and efficient way to communicate what’s going on inside our heads with those outside it and sometimes across the disconnected nerves in our own brains. (Daniel Dennett calls this internal vocalization a “neat trick” that humans developed to short circuit and speed up our own cognition.)

    For all of their value, and often they’re all we’ve got, I think it would be a mistake to forget that there is much more going on in your head and mind than words alone can express. This is no shortcoming of articulation. Cognitive scientists have revealed that the vast majority of our thoughts go unarticulated, but that makes them no less important. Our verbal consciousness wants to take all the credit for the non-verbal part of our brain that’s doing most of the work. Maybe putting some restraints on this tyrant will open up whole new vistas of understanding.

    Not to mention the disservice relying on words alone would do to your intuition at reading body-language, animal behavior (which you mentioned) or the unfortunate not blessed with your skills in elocution!

    Looking forward to more words from you….

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