Word Power


Sticks and stones will break my bones

but names will never hurt me, 

When I die you will cry

then remember what you called me.

I remember singing this to my sister or friends when as children, our tiffs devolved into name calling. This was the mantra that protected our hurt feelings and let others know that we were resistant to the pain they were trying to inflict. And yet, even as kids we knew that it didn’t work…we were -and often still are – deeply hurt by names, by words. As children, we learn to either strike back, with physical force, fiercely sharp wit, or to withdraw, hardened, training ourselves in numbness, but often silently seething.

A young mum recently shared with me how her 4 year old daughter was struggling to handle her classmates mocking her. Too young for re-constructive surgery, this little girl lives with scars caused by prolonged use of a nose drip that saved her life as a premature baby. She appears to cope well at school but comes home frustrated and angry- but not sure at whom. Will the ‘sticks and stones’ rhyme suffice?

In South Africa today, we are collectively appalled by the never ending Julius Malema saga and the “Kill the Boer” song – now regarded as “Incitement to Genocide.” Today, International courts are being called upon to punish this crime of hate speech. It’s no longer a big news story, but it does provoke so much thought on the power of our words and where things can lead when we are careless and irresponsible for what we utter.

At what point do we fully assess the weight and power of our words? When is it that we will exercise our Choice and indeed our Responsibility to use words with Care? To weigh and measure them: what we intend, where and how they will land when we issue them into the world. Bullets can be dug out of wounds and the wounds sutured, but words cannot be recalled.

Now you may be nodding and thinking of all the people you know who are abusive, critical, harsh and hurtful with their words. But are you truly more careful? Are you really less guilty? Have you considered, not just the words we use to hurt and label others, but the words we use to dis-empower ourselves???

Lines like, “I’m just a (house wife/mom/teacher/______)”, “I’m so stupid!”, “I’m such a _____” and the terribly abused “I can’t…” These are the greatest abuse of words for they are  self destructive. They slowly build in us the conviction of their “truth” and we stop striving for, believing in  and dreaming of what’s possible. With this kind of language about ourselves, how do we empower a 4 year old girl to create a narrative about who she is that is more powerful  than that of her peers? How do we create a joyously hopeful narrative about South Africa’s future when our speaking about ourselves as individuals, as families and as communities lacks the possibility of being EXTRAORDINARY!

Margaret Attwood writes of our ability to “spell” words and cast “spells” with them. Yes, words are powerful. They can and do hurt. But words are also the basis of declarations of faith, oaths and testimony. Words are all we need in any prayer.

Words heal. Words nurture. Words inspire.

What is the value you place on your word?

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5 Responses

  1. Words have always fascinated me too. Your observations about the power of words provoke deeper thought. Words are used to learn, they can heal, arouse, inspire and elevate. But, when devoid of sincerity and warmth, words simply drop as the leaves from a tree in the fall.
    Strung together their magic weaves imagery and tales that transports us to other times and places.
    Picking up on the other issue of children and their ability to hurt each other saddens me that even at aged 4 children have learnt to be mean. I’d like to know more about how this happens.

    • True…There is so much more to the topic. I’ve been thinking that it deserves a series of posts. Will look into it. I love your imagery of dropping leaves and woven magic…Thank you for posting your comment.

  2. I must admit that this blog has really got me thinking about how I use my words. I spend most of my day writing, reading and commenting on very technical pieces and by the end of the day feel that I do not have the words to communicate with my loved ones. It is just so much effort, can’t I just give them some generic blurb. Many a time I realise that all I have at my disposal to express feelings, emotions, ideas and dreams are words. Why then do I see it as an effort? Why is it something that in my limited view I see as “not coming easily”. I can use lots of words and say absolutely nothing of true worth. I always marvel at those who are able to use words to express what is dear to them and get the other to understand that.This is so evident to me in the many great books that I read and when I am done I say “how well written, I can never do that”. Maybe it is not so much about being as eloquent as the Great Writers and Story Tellers but about being able to use my words to express myself in a manner that makes a positive contribution to my engagement and interaction.

  3. Thank you Shehnaaz for your comment. I’m glad to hear that it’s provoked deeper thought…That’s the intention. Too much of our time is spent in automode, unaware or unconscious of the world around us and our inevitable impact on it- whether we notice it or not! Perhaps we need only be more conscious, rather than great or famous…

  4. Very thought provoking and so true

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