Looking at Language: The Power of Words

Looking at Language: The Power of Words

Celebrating our most wonderful invention.

By Elizabeth Martin, ACS

“Don’t let it end like this.
Tell them I said something.”
       – Pancho Villa’s Last Words

I love words. I always have. Any word – long, short, funny, serious, obscure or cliché – words are the fabric around which we humans weave ourselves.

Without words, I wouldn’t have a job, rap artists wouldn’t have any way to curse, and politicians would be demoted to mimes in the park.

Words are perhaps our most wondrous invention – beyond that of fire, even – for without words, what would we have called the blaze?

Humans love words, even at the beginning of our lives. Anyone who has kids remembers how fascinated they are when they discover words. That first expression of comprehension is priceless – their eyes widen, and you can see the light bulb shining.

After that, it’s a wordfest, as they point to everything moving or nailed down, wanting to know the word for it. I remember when my first daughter discovered the word ‘hippopotamus’ – she was three. We listened to so many variations of that word I was beginning to hate the Discovery Channel.

But soon she found another one – ‘hypochondriac’ – and went off again. She learned new words daily, and is still making up her own at age 22. Now she has a new baby to find new words with.

How about the grade-school kid who learns a new spelling word and comes home and uses it constantly? I can’t count how many definitions my youngest girl tried to get for ‘tributary’ when she learned it – everything was a tributary of something. It was funny, but as I laughed, I realized she was defining the word by what it wasn’t, implanting it in her brain forever.

I take my words very seriously. When I write – whether it be a speech, a book review, magazine article or novel – I choose each word very carefully, looking for just the right meaning. I have found that synonyms aren’t always interchangeable, and sometimes you really need that $3 word to get your meaning across. 

                    “Toastmasters is all about words – using words
                    to convince, amuse, impress and inspire.”

When I talk about my grandfather, I could say he was a cranky man. And that says it, maybe. But if I say he was a cantankerous old grump, there’s a clear picture in your mind of an old man who hated just about everything.

Besides meaning, there are some words that just sound better when you say them out loud. I think that’s what attracted my daughter to “hippopotamus.” It sounds neat to say.

Then there are those words that look good in print, but try as we might we cannot pronounce them. I still have problems with linoleum, chrysanthemum and aluminum. I mangle them no matter how slowly I say the words.

We all have words that cause the tongue to trip and land in a pratfall. These are such common problems that all kinds of names have been given to them: Spoonerisms (a transposition of sounds – Sea shells she sells on the sea shore) and malaprops (ludicrous misuse of a word – “pineapple of politeness” instead of “pinnacle”) are two examples.

And words have power. If you doubt that, then answer this: Why does name calling among children cause such concern? If “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” is true, then why are we so concerned about political correctness? If names were truly powerless to cause harm, then ethnic jokes would not be taboo.

And the power of words can be used for both good and evil. People who know words can twist them, combining them with other words to make things sound good, often without really saying anything. Politicians are very good at this. Manipulators use words to trick people into believing whatever they want them to believe, and this lies at the heart of the influence that cults hold over their members.

What we call something defines that something, which is why names and labels can be so harmful. If too many people define you as worthless, you become that definition, because words have power.

That’s why the Word of the Day is so popular – it expands our vocabulary and shares that power with everyone who can learn.

Ask what has been the most far-reaching invention of mankind, and you’ll get a number of answers. I will say it’s the printing press, because this invention made words – power – available to everyone, not just the elite. Words come out of the desire to understand, which leads to reading, which leads to literacy, which leads to questioning.

Toastmasters is all about words – using words to convince, amuse, impress and inspire. So the next time you craft a speech, pay particular attention to the words – the way they sound, what they mean, the connotations they convey. Use the power of words to improve your speech, to make your message more vital and appealing.

Elizabeth Martin, ACS, is a member of Fairbanks North Star Borough Club and a professional writer. She lives in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Wit & Wisdom

“Most of the disputes of the world arise from words.” 
                – William Murray, Morgan v. Jones (1773)

“Poor Faulkner...thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right.
But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” 
                – Ernest Hemingway, Papa Hemingway (1966)

“Slang is language that takes off its coat, spits on its hands, and goes to work.” 
                – Carl Sandburg, The Dictionary of American Slang (1934)

“That [man] can compress the most words in the fewest ideas of any man I ever knew.” 
                – Abraham Lincoln, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln (1892)

“Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise.” 
                – William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style (1918)

“There is a weird power in a spoken word.” 
                – Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900)

“A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought.” 
                – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Towne v. Eisner (1918)

“All words are pegs to hang ideas on.” 
                – Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit (1887)

“[Warren Harding’s] speeches leave the impression of an army of pompous
phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea.” 

                – William G. McAdoo, The Fine Art of Political Wit (1964)

Compiled by Fred Shapiro, editor of Yale Book of Quotations and an associate librarian and lecturer at Yale Law School. Reach him at fred.shapiro@yale.edu .