This I Believe

Louise - Redmond, Washington
Entered on February 14, 2008


Even before I became a writer, I was sensitive to the power of word choice. The spoken word has power that goes beyond its assortment of vowels and consonants. It has the ability to sway the soul and spirit.

When I was a child, asking permission for something, one of the adults in my young life would answer, “I don’t care.” Not “I don’t mind.” “I don’t care.” There is a universe of difference in that choice of words.

I remember feeling a little shock the first time someone referred to me as a lady rather than a girl, and when clerks began calling me “ma’am” instead of “miss.” It was a palpable—and not too welcome–sign that I was no longer young. Smart retailers have since figured that one out, of course. Now when I shop at Nordstrom the clerks call me and every other woman “miss,” regardless of evident age. The word is deliberately chosen to flatter us—and it works.

Entire religious movements and dogmas have been based on a translator’s word choice. Outrageous situations are justified by creative euphemisms. We hear “enhanced interrogation” to describe torture, or “food uncertainty” to describe hunger. Sister Helen Prejean, in her beautiful essay for NPR, illustrated the point by refusing to use the word “execute” in talking about the state-sponsored deaths she attended; she chose “kill”

instead. The word choice makes us uncomfortable, and I suspect this is precisely what Sister Helen intends.

Politicians choose the best words to describe themselves, and the worst—the most pejorative–to characterize their opponents. Think of the word “cackle” used to describe a prominent female leader’s hearty laugh, or the subtle reduction of the word “Democratic” to “Democrat” when referring to the political party. In a universe of soundbites, a single word makes a universe of difference.

I was fortunate, when I was a music student, to meet a woman who taught me that what I said aloud had great impact on my subconscious, and accordingly, on the outcome of my efforts. I learned not to say, “I can’t sing a high B flat,” but to say, “I haven’t mastered my high notes yet.” I learned to say “I’m a singer,” and later, “I’m a writer,” before I was technically a professional in either of those fields. This practice sustained me through the period of struggle toward my ultimate goal. There’s a reason presidential candidates say, “When I am president . . .” or “As president, I will . . .” They don’t say “if.” I correct my writing students when they say “I’m not published.” I teach them to add “yet.”

The late writer Madeleine L’Engle wrote that words are icons. The Buddha speaks of the power of the word, as does the Christ. Being able to communicate in words is one of the great gifts of being human. Words give us power. We should take care over the ones we choose.