The Power of Words
by Karen L. Oberst

  "But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think."
~George Gordon Byron

Words are powerful. This is no news flash for those of us who put words together for our livelihood. Yet sometimes it is good to take a step back and remember just how powerful our tools, our words are.

"Words are powerful."

  "Words have the power to change things for good or ill." They can express a nation's desire for freedom ("We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."--U.S. Declaration of Independence); offer forgiveness ("With malice toward none, and charity for all..."--Abraham Lincoln, 1860); seek to inspire ("We are not now that strength which in old days/Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are --/One equal temper of heroic hearts, /Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."--Alfred, Lord Tennyson "Ulysses"); reveal despair ("The past tempts us, the present confuses us, the future frightens us, and our lives slip away, moment by moment, lost in the vast, terrible in-between."--J. Michael Straczynski "The Coming of Shadows"); try to entertain ("Say goodnight, Gracie." "Goodnight, Gracie."--Closing of Burns & Allen routines); express hate (nigger, honky, injun); give form to our deepest desires ("Please let him notice me.") and on and on. Words have the power to change things for good or for ill. Listen to what some of the world's thinkers have had to say about Words:

  "Words are potent weapons for all causes, good or bad".--Manly Hall

"There comes Emerson first, whose rich words, every one, Are like gold nails in temples to hang trophies on. A Fable for Critics."--James Russell Lowell. 1819-1891

"When I read great literature, great drama, speeches, or sermons, I feel that the human mind has not achieved anything greater than the ability to share feelings and thoughts through language."--James Earl Jones

"All books are either dreams or swords, You cut, or you can drug, with words."--Amy Lowell ("Sword Blades and Poppy Seed" (1914))

"How often misused words generate misleading thoughts."--Herbert Spencer (Principles of Ethics (1879) bk. 1, pt. 2, ch. 8, sect. 152)

"How forcible are right words!" Job 6:25

"...the human mind has not achieved anything greater than the ability to share feelings and thoughts through language."--James Earl Jones

  "When we write, it is sometimes good to remember the powerful, ancient craft we practice." Ancient peoples also recognized the power of words. In Latin, there are two words for word. One is verbus, from which we get verbal. The other is dictum, the noun form (the substantive) of the verb dico, to say. Originally, however, dico meant to consecrate, as to the gods, an indicator of the power of words in that culture.

In classical Greek, logos comes from lego, to say. It can mean either a word, or the thought behind the word, which is why the English word logical comes from it. By the way, the Greeks had a word for a prose writer: logopoios. It means a creator of words.

The writers of the New Testament, who wrote in Hellenistic (first century) Greek found ho logos, The Word to be a powerful metaphor to describe Jesus. To them, he was God's word, God's thoughts, made tangible.

When we write, it is sometimes good to remember the powerful, ancient craft we practice. It reminds us of our responsibility to our readers to write truth and beauty, rather than lies and ugliness

  Have you sometimes had trouble getting your thoughts on paper, or saying what you mean? You are not alone in wrestling with words.

"Words strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, Will not stay still."--T. S. Eliot (Four Quartets 'Burnt Norton' (1936) pt. 5)

"No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery, and thought is viscous."--Henry Brooks Adams (The Education of Henry Adams (1907) ch. 31)

"One of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart that you can't utter."--James Earl Jones

"'I never knew Words could be so confusing,' Milo said to Tock as he bent down to scratch the dog's ear.'Only when you use a lot to say a little,' answered Tock Milo thought this was quite the wisest thing he'd heard all day."--Norman Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth)

"Our thoughts are bordered on all sides by our facility with language."--J. Michael Straczynski

"Words are chameleons, which reflect the color of their environment."--Learned Hand

"Grant me some wild expressions, Heavens, or I shall burst--... Words, words or I shall burst."--George Farquhur (The Constant Couple (1699) act 5, sc. 3)

"Our thoughts are bordered on all sides by our facility with language."--J. Michael Straczynski

  "And yet when the words come out right, nothing is more satisfying." And yet when the words come out right, nothing is more satisfying. They become "thoughts that breathe, and words that burn," as Thomas Gray said. May your thoughts breathe and your words burn as you write this month. I started with Byron, and will end with Shelley.

"And by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished heart
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!"
~Percy Bysshe Shelley ("Ode to the West Wind" (1819) 1.65)


Copyright © 1998 by Karen L. Oberst

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