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?

Advertisements