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

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