I believe in the power of words. The ancients did too. “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God”. Even today some occult religions believe that chanting something often enough will make it so. In ancient Greece Aristotle wrote the classic textbook on word use that is still studied in colleges today.
But I never really understood the power of words, until my brother was killed by a drunk driver. Ken and I had a standing chess game every Friday after work. He was 19 and I badgered him about going to college to make something of himself. Eventually he promised to do that but only if I would go back to grad school too. A drunk driver speeding down Dort highway wasn’t paying attention and crashed into the back of a Buick driven by an aging grandmother. This in turn forced her car into the oncoming traffic for a head on collision with my brother. They both died instantly but as so often happens, the drunk driver escaped without a scratch. Ken was returning home from college registration. I learned first hand the meaning of guilt and the meaning of grief and the meaning of anger.
I attended the trial and saw the state hired prosecutor loosing ground to a highly paid defense attorney who was skilled with words. The defense argued that they called these occurrences “accidents” for a reason. The defendant really never intended to harm anyone. At the trial’s close the victims were invited to write some comments for the jury to consider. I chose my words carefully. I told them that driving while drunk was like practicing archery in a shopping mall. You may not intend to hurt anyone, but the action does needlessly endanger the safety of innocent bystanders. Someone who was acting stupidly and illegally- in fact caused these two unnecessary deaths and that person should therefore be held responsible. To my amazement, when the judge read the verdict the jurors had used my analogy almost word for word in finding the defendant guilty of second degree murder. Shortly afterwards I kept my word and enrolled in grad school.
Years later when my mother died of cancer it was words that helped us cope. My mother had been in a coma for many days. My sister woke everyone up in the middle of the night crying uncontrollably at her bedside. To this day I cannot explain it, but Mom woke up. My startled sister asked, “Are you alright?” and my mother smiled and said, “Yes, I’m alright.” Then she faded back into the coma and passed peacefully shortly after. In her dying days her words gave us peace and comfort. At the funeral service, when well-meaning friends asked if we were alright, we all responded by saying “No, I’m half left.” The words helped lighten the mood, opened conversations and stimulated memories of my mother’s playful sense of humor. At the same time it made us accept the reality that something “right” with our lives was gone and we were “left” to continue life’s journey alone.
Today I teach writing at a major university. I encourage my students to respect the power of words. Words can be like loaded guns to be handled with caution or they can be like wonder drugs to cure society’s ills. So if someone asks “What’s the good word?” I say “They are all good as long as you choose them wisely and use them responsibly.
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