The Power of Words

Written or spoken, they can make or break our day
October 30, 2019 Updated: October 30, 2019

Long ago, when I was a kid, I watched a television advertisement for Anacin that remained stuck in my head all these years. A mother and grown daughter are working in a kitchen. The mother wonders whether the soup needs more salt, and the daughter retorts, “Mother, please! I’d rather do it myself.” The voice-over then says, calmly and coolly, “Control yourself. Sure you’ve got a headache. You’re tense. Irritable. But don’t take it out on her.”

Maybe one reason that ad rented a permanent apartment in my brain has to do with the power of words.

Strength, Inspiration, Love

Words can make or break our day. Whether written or spoken, they can buck up the disheartened, those beaten down by circumstances and failure, those for whom compliments are as rare as a snowstorm in July. If we find ourselves locked in some gloomy attic of the mind or spirit, words of encouragement can become candles illuminating the darkness, unlocking the door, guiding us down the shadowy stairwell, and escorting us into the sunshine. A simple “Well-done!” uttered by that usually taciturn boss can leave her assistant walking on air for the rest of the day.

Many coaches, teachers, motivational speakers, and others bring words into play to rally their listeners, infuse their hearts with pride and courage, challenge them, and point them to the uplands of greater accomplishments. The 14-year-old who receives a couple of sentences of praise from his teacher for his history essay finds himself striving even harder for excellence. In Kenneth Branagh’s film “Henry V,” when we listen to the speech the king delivers to his men before the Battle of Agincourt, some of us find ourselves as ready as any of those English knights to pluck up a shield, raise high a sword, and charge across the field.

Words also usher in romance and love. Few of us can write like William Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but passion can transform even that inarticulate woodworker or that shy barista into rough poets, makers of spoken verse or love letters whose fumbling rhythms and awkward meanings are treasured by the beloved.

A Pennsylvania dairy farmer I knew long ago used to rise well before dawn to milk the cows. In the kitchen, he often left little notes to his wife. One morning he scratched out a few lines telling her how much he loved her. When he was late returning from the barn, she went and found him collapsed of a heart attack, never to regain consciousness. That woman had lost her husband, but she kept his simple note until her own death some 20 years later.

At the right moment, just a brief “I love you, you know” can flash across the heart like lightning in a storm-black sky.

The Other Side of the Coin

Which brings us to the dark side of language.

Words can heal, raise our spirits, and speak to us of love and affection, but they also have the power to cut us to the quick or leave a gaping wound. We may forgive the cruel remark of a friend, an employer, or a spouse, but forgetting is another matter altogether. An example: When I was a seventh-grader in a military school, a new cadet 200 miles from home, I asked an eighth-grader if I could borrow a pencil.

“Minick,” he said, “I wouldn’t give you the sweat off my back.” I have long forgotten that cadet’s name, and have no idea why he despised me, but that dismissal and the sneer on his face are as vivid to me as the day they were delivered.

The mother whose toddler goes into a meltdown where he screams “I hate you!” will probably forget that moment, but the mom whose 16-year-old shrieks the same words will likely find the moment emblazoned forever on her memory. That barb, those three simple syllables, will remain a wound in her heart for as long as she lives. (A note of consolation for moms with difficult teens: Odds are that the kid who curses you will be weeping at your funeral.)

Words Without Faces

Today, the opportunities to hurt others with words have grown immeasurably. With our technology, we can debase a stranger thousands of miles away while hiding our identity behind a pseudonym, we can end a relationship with a short, cruel text, and we can revile those whose politics differ from ours without fear of repercussion.

Liberated from uncomfortable face-to-face encounters, freed even from taking responsibility for our words, some hurl insult and obscene deprecation with utter abandon, ditching manners and decorum, and reveling in the role of bully.

Because of that technology, what we write can also come back to haunt us. The grown man who at age 15 wrote something stupid online about race or sex, the 30-year-old actress who sent out a private text message 10 years earlier about a director she despised, the politician who tweets out a remark that is later twisted by doxxers into sentiments he never intended: They and others can find themselves, stunned and shamed, at the center of a firestorm.

Most of us have heard that old chant from childhood:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words will never hurt me.”

Even when I was a child, this lesson from the playground made little sense to me. Far from never paining me, words possessed the power of a stick of dynamite, and the explosion could damage me far more than mere sticks and stones. Long forgotten are the aches and physical wounds of my childhood—the bruises from backyard football, the cuts and sores incurred in “dirt clod battles,” the knees scraped riding a bike and the fingers jammed playing baseball—but many of the lacerations rent by words remain. To make sense, at least for me, that nursery chant should run:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words … words can break my heart.”

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.