I believe in words. I’m amazed, amused, and frustrated that so many people deny the power words hold. “It’s only words,” they say. “Actions speak louder than words.” “Words can’t begin to express how I feel.”
But words enable us to define our reality and share it with others. Words enflame, and words heal. People may dismiss words, but they won’t stop arguing about them – just look at the current domestic squabble over the terms Democratic Party, as the Democrats call it, and Democrat Party, as the Republicans would prefer it to be known. George Orwell, in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” wisely advocated using simple words. Doing so, he wrote, frees the mind from the grip of what is commonly accepted and makes stupidity unmistakable, even to the speaker.
The potency of words in public life is obvious, but I believe in words even more for personal reasons. Ever since I was a child, I have collected words that I love for their sounds or their letter forms, and I use them to calm and center me. I turn them over in my mind like smooth stones. Carapace. Rickrack. Prairie. Flummox.
Words, like individuals and cultures, carry their histories with them. In high-school Latin, I was shocked to learn that the ancient Romans would have thought me sinister because I’m left-handed. Whenever my poodle splashes his way through a puddle, I smile at the etymological connection between my dog and the muddy water. When inspiration hits, my breath quickens, viscerally reminding me that to inspire is to breathe life into. No matter how casually I toss off a hasty “bye-bye,” I’m mindful that “good-bye” began its life as “God be with you,” and of how firmly the wish for divine protection remains embedded in it.
Words give each of us the chance to make art every day, simply as we go about our business. Like Molière’s would-be gentleman, we can discover that we have been speaking prose all our lives – and that sometimes we even have the chance to speak poetry. The opportunities are all around us. Naming the new baby, recounting the funny incident at the office, expressing anger in a way that can be heard, giving the mystery of love its due. We can all use words to enrich our lives – and, yes, to make the world a place of better understanding. Try it. You just might find that words can express how you feel, in a way that’s all your own.
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