The power of language

Words have the power to build up or destroy, to affirm or to deny.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

I love words. I think there is a power in the language we use. Words have the power to build up or destroy, to affirm or to deny. Through words, we can create whole new worlds. Words reflect our choice to be inclusive or exclusive. Words express whether we are people who criticize and condemn or whether we praise and commend.

Our society has lost this sense of the power of words. We tend to devalue words. They’ve become cheap. Words are often used to cover up reality, or to deflect attention, or to try to justify a certain set of actions. How often, for example, do we trust what politicians say in an election campaign?

Another sign of the devaluation of language are the euphemisms we use to hide the truth. The military euphemism “collateral damage”, for example, really means to kill innocent people. But the phrase tries to hide that reality behind something which sounds much more innocuous.

There are so many examples of advertising and political doublespeak. But that doesn’t mean that words are not powerful. It’s not just words. When people misuse words for their own purposes, they are in fact breaking trust with their readers or hearers. It’s a form of lying.

Words are truly powerful instruments. There’s no such thing as “just words”, and the old nursery rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is wrong. The right word in a particular instance is very powerful. The wrong word can be powerfully deceiving and hurtful.

The ancient Hebrews knew that. In the first stories in the Bible, stories about creation, speaking plays a highly significant role. These stories are not history. They are a profound reflection on what it means to affirm that God was somehow involved in creation. At the centre of the first story about creation, God speaks, and something happens. Words create worlds.

That continues to be true today. Words still can create — or destroy — worlds.

Scholars of language talk about “performative language”. One of the best examples of performative language is a promise. A promise is made in words. But it’s not just a set of words. A promise is also an action. A promise is a spoken act, which can only be lived out in action. Once made, a promise can not be taken back. It can only be kept … or broken.

The words of the promise do something. They bring something into being. In a wedding, the couple makes promises to each other which bring a new reality into being. Two people who had been single and separate are now joined in something which did not exist before the promises were spoken.

Because of their power, we need to be careful about how we use words. That’s quite obvious when we come to things like making promises. We are careful not to promise something we can’t deliver.

But there are other examples about the power of language. Language is an evolving organism. Words change meaning regularly. New words are invented. Old words are dropped.

A good example is the word “charity”. Today, charity means “generous actions or donations to aid the poor, ill, or helpless”. In the old King James Bible (published early in the 17th century), “charity” meant something quite different 500 years ago. It meant what we now mean by “love” in its most profound sense. We would never imagine that we would draw the person we loved into our embrace and whisper tenderly, “My heart feels a warm and welcome charity for you”. The word has changed meaning.

The same thing has happened with other words (“gay” jumps immediately to mind). Another is the word “radicalization”. News people use that word now to mean “someone who has become more violent because of the teachings of violence in religion.”

Originally, however, radical comes from the Latin word “radix” which means “root”. To be radical, thus, means to know your roots, to understand where you come from and what gives you nourishment.

It is one of those things which drive me crazy. I wish people would stop using “radicalized” to describe someone who has become more violent. It really means that a person who has delved deeply into their roots, a person who has become more grounded.

I say be careful about how you use words — in politics, of course, but also in everyday speech. Your words have power. Use that power to build others up.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook

Just Posted

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Over 5K jabbed at Interior Health mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics

The clinics have made stops in more than 40 communities since launching last week

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interior Health COVID-19 cases falling slower than the rest of B.C.

More than a third of provincial cases announced Thursday came from the Interior

Students at Creston Valley Secondary School put together an art installation of a replica residential school room. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
Creston students create art installation of residential school room

The replica was decorated with a small bed, school uniform, and notes written with pleas for help

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Second dose vaccinations accelerating throughout region: Interior Health

To date, more than 675,000 doses have been administered throughout the region

1914
It happened this week in 1914

June 13 - 19: Compiled by Dave Humphrey from the archived newspapers… Continue reading

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Patrick O’Brien, a 75-year-old fisherman, went missing near Port Angeles Thursday evening. (Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)
Search for lost fisherman near Victoria suspended, U.S. Coast Guard says

The 75-year-old man was reported missing Thursday evening

Most Read