The Power of Words

The making of a good Dictionary
is a contribution of the highest order to the welfare of a language.
It clarifies and stabilises the pronunciation, orthography and meaning of its words;
garners and stores the varied wealth of its vocabulary.
To the farmer, his barn; to the manufacturer, his warehouse;
to all who use and value their native tongue, a dictionary.

— David Lloyd George

Without arguing with David Lloyd George, who after all, was trying to make a valid case for dictionaries everywhere, things change over the course of a hundred years. Not in itself a problem, as it provides a reason to keep selling new dictionaries.

‘We all know words don’t mean what they meant sixty, or six hundred years ago.  And yet..words do contain within themselves echoes of their previous lives.  We hear in them not only the way we use them now, but also the way our parents used them, and their parents before them.  Words are like living things, as they move around, they grow, they change.  A word is nothing but information.  English spelling and pronunciation, simply tell us where the word came from, how it relates to other words, and what it likely meant…    (Frantic Semantics: Snapshots of Our Changing Language).

We learn a word’s connotations, the associations it carries beyond the current dictionary meaning, by hearing it in context, from childhood, or when we first heard the word. This may explain why we don’t like certain words. In the ‘caring professions’ at present (a term I also personally dislike), we have ‘Service user’. No one likes it because of the tendency to abbreviate everything, and who wants to be a ‘user’? On the other hand, one of the terms it replaced, along with ‘patient’, or ‘inmate’, was ‘client’. Such is the dilemma. What about ‘customer’? Why is it also unpopular? Apparently, in the time of Shakespeare, it too, was linked to the brothel. This is a much wider problem than it first appears, many otherwise respectable words end up with sexual overtones. As if you needed more examples, here are some.

Adult’, not grown-up, but pornographic. ‘Babe’, not an infant, but a desirable woman. ‘Bonding’, not a means of joining materials, but of getting to know someone better. ‘Gay’ not happy, but a same sex relationship, and in turn, ‘Relationship’, not family or marriage, but a serious sexual attachment, a little like ‘Partner’, or perhaps the stage before. ‘Sex’, not gender, as in ‘the female sex’, but intercourse. Trouble is, this word is used in every way possible, especially by advertisers, but also in completely asexual contexts like news and politics, ‘The government sexed up the report..’ A bit like ‘sleaze’ really.

Words colour our interactions with others. One of the most powerful ways to convey meaning and to influence the way people think is through the use of language. History shows how profound the effects of the spoken word can be. Churchill and Hitler were both charismatic speakers and the repercussions of their words are felt even now, and the chances are, the teachers we remember were the best communicators.

Language conveys our beliefs, values and expectations to others. Positive words can be uplifting and invigorating, while negative words have the opposite effect. Clearly, verbal communication is multifaceted. Ideally, both the person speaking and the listener will be committed to the process of conveying the message. Power is an aspect of communication that is not always considered. In a work and youth orientated culture, for example, older people are often perceived in a negative way. Viewed as having a lesser importance because they may no longer contribute economically, or the extra effort involved, they can be vulnerable to verbal abuse.

Our culture can de-personalize older people, leaving them feeling worthless and excluded. Older people are sometimes addressed in ‘baby talk’, perhaps while receiving professional care, a time they may already be feeling vulnerable. Abusive language too, demonstrates a lack of tenderness for those we say we care about; undoubtedly the problem is often a hidden one, behind closed doors. At its most harmful, such use of language can cause major effects on a person’s quality of life, and even risk their life.

Using words positively, respecting the other person, and being mindful of the complexities involved in verbal communication, can empower any person, but particularly the most vulnerable in our society. This is the serious side of the words we use. For an example, Fred had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He felt confused, bitter, angry and depressed. What would you say to him? ‘I know how you must feel?’

After some angry confrontations with doctors and members of his family, in his despair Fred finally talked to a minister who had, on a few occasions, gently and non-intrusively offered his support. He also referred him to a counsellor who worked in a hospice for the dying. With their help, Fred gradually learned how to manage the ultimate problem situation of his life. He put his affairs in order, began to learn how to say goodbye to his family and the world, and set about the process of managing physical decline. There were setbacks, but generally he managed the process of dying much better than he would have done without the help of his family and his counsellors (Gerard Egan,The Skilled Helper).

Misunderstandings can cause unintentional offence, but when intentional, should be regarded as abusive. Emotional abuse includes the consistent criticizing and belittling of a child’s appearance, intelligence, competence, or value as a person. Sarcasm can be particularly damaging. We all know there is a difference in laughing with someone, and laughing at them. Children often take sarcastic remarks at face value, not discriminating between what is said in earnest and what is said in ‘fun.’ Family therapist Sean Hogan-Downey  notes: “The child feels hurt, but everyone is laughing, so he learns not to trust his feelings.”

Thus, in most cases, there is a ring of truth in what Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle once said: “Sarcasm I now see to be, in general, the language of the devil; for which reason I have, long since, as good as renounced it.”

One problem here is the common one of the loneliness of verbal abusers. Coleman felt that being a loner cuts down on meaningful conversation and makes it difficult for an abuser to see his situation objectively and to seek help from a confidant. Not having friends and close relatives who will act as a tempering force, tends to encourage a person to act out his selfishness without restraint, since his wrong thinking is not checked by others close to him. He drives them away, one by one.  ( James Coleman, Intimate Relationships, Marriage, and Family).

Malicious comments that belittle, humiliate, or intimidate can do grave damage. Like water dripping on a rock, denigrating innuendos may seem harmless at first. But self-esteem is soon eroded. “If I had to choose between physical and verbal abuse, I’d take a beating anytime,” said one woman. “You can see the marks,” she explained, “So at least people feel sorry for you. With the verbal stuff, it just makes you crazy. The wounds are invisible. It’s like nobody cares.”

When you gain a person’s confidence, and they begin to tell you their experiences, sometimes all they want or need is a listening ear. Most likely, what they do not want or need is someone else (you) taking over and trying to solve the ‘problem’.

Consider this example of two friends talking on the way home from work. “That was a lousy day. The boss shouted at me for not working fast enough and slowing the team down. I shouldn’t have lost it, but I told him what I thought of him. He shouted back ‘Don’t come in tomorrow!’ and now I don’t know whether he fired me or not.” How would you respond? Would you tell her what to do? Suppose your advice made the situation worse? Or would you say nothing?

This sort of talk more generally focuses on what other people do or fail to do. Some people talk as if they have no control over the outcome of their experiences. Perhaps inadvertently, they see themselves as victims. Conversely, they may fail to recognize that they may be blameless, abusive relationships are often characterized by the abuser convincing the person they are to blame, that they are powerless, unable to do anything. Talking the problem through is the first step to the person themselves finding the solution.

We sometimes remind ourselves of the debt our language owes to the Bible and William Shakespeare. I would add the Oxford English Dictionary, but will finish with Proverbs 25:11, “As apples of gold in silver carvings, is a word spoken at the right time for it.”

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