I frequently tell one of my kids that words have power. I tell him because he tends to use words many may find objectionable, and he uses them because he thinks words are just words. But then, why use them, I ask him? Even if only to color his speech, the fact that they do so means that underlying them there exists an ability to move someone, there exists the intent to move someone, to cause some action or some reaction. Otherwise why even both saying anything?
I am, as you may have guessed, not talking about the magical power of words, though their result may appear to be so if one had not expected the effect, or conversely, if one had expected the effect and gotten exactly the desired response.
I am talking about the very real power that words have – the power to move someone emotionally, the power to cause them to action, the power to inspire them, anger them, disgust them or even to sicken them, bringing bile up their throats.
Now, it is not always the words in and of themselves that do these things, for indeed, it is often the imagery which they convey that leads one to action, love, anger, or revulsion. For instance, if I say to someone “I would die for you,” they will be moved by these words, overwhelmed by all that is contained within that declaration.
On the other hand, the simple beauty of the sound of certain concatenations of words – because of their rhymes, their rhythm, their meter – can bring about the most wonderful experiences, though intangible they be. The truth of this can be demonstrated by substituting more ordinary words and phrases to those in verses considered supremely evocative.
Compare: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” James Joyce, Dubliners, “The Dead”
With a simplified version: “Gabriel slowly passed out when he heard the snow falling on the living and the dead like a sign of their end.”
Which do you think is most evocative?
Well-crafted statements can also bring about individual decisions or commitments, as well as inspire masses and fill them with resolve in the face of impending tragedy or in the face of a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
Compare this: “We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Ronald Reagan, June 12, 1987; Brandenburg Gate, Berlin
With this: “We welcome change and openness because we believe that freedom and security are both necessary to world peace, and there is one thing that the Soviets could do to convince us they want peace and prosperity. So, Mr Gorbachev, if you want peace, tear down this wall!”
Does the rewritten version sound as powerful as the original? Would it have moved, inspired the masses to chant and demand that the wall be brought down? Would it have moved President Gorbachev?
I firmly believe that words have power, and that because of it, they must be used intentionally always, and carefully so as to achieve the intended result rather than its opposite. Words are not just words. If they were, it would be pointless to say anything at all. This conviction may constitute a limitation in my writing, because I will not write in my novel certain things which I find objectionable, even if one might expect that certain characters would use offensive words. I refuse to use the words because to use them I would have to say them in my mind while writing them and imagine what they contain, and I cannot bring myself to do so.
But I will use words, as clumsily as I may, to inspire, to give courage, to make one think or question things.