".....But the human tongue is a beast that few can master. It strains constantly to break out of its cage, and if it is not tamed, it will tun wild and cause you grief.” - Robert Greene
"Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs." -Pearl Strachan Hurd
"Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed." -Abraham Joshua Herschel
“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” -Proverbs 12:18
“The pen is mightier than the sword” -Edward Bulwer-Lytton
In just about every era that written language has existed, it’s been generally recognized that words are more than just an evolved form of communication. Simply put, words have power. By Abraham Lincoln’s word, slaves were legally declared freed, though it took further words and more importantly, actions to get the desired result. By Adolf Hitler’s word, an entire race of people was trampled on and murdered by virtue of his authority and the propaganda campaign that was waged against the Jewish people in Europe.
It’s easy to see the post hoc power in speech when we can look back in history and draw a line of events between the words, action, and the result. And obviously there is a lot of missing information as to how those words were passed down that caused the loyal soldiers and citizens to act the way they did. Hitler’s words would have meant nothing if people did not believe and subsequently agree to bring those words to fruition. But that only gives further credence to the idea that words are so much more than letters arranged in a specific sequence. Again, words have power.
So what about words that we don’t have the result to judge their efficacy on? Without a result, are words powerless? I’d like to direct you to a quote from one of the most important authors to exist based purely on his prophetic assessment of how the world, and particularly how words work.
““But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
― George Orwell, 1984
As if words translating into actions wasn’t a terrifying enough concept, the idea that language can corrupt thought is equally, if not more horrific in my opinion. But what does this look like? Do we say something and then palpably feel our minds grow darker? No. That’s not how it works. Speech changes our thoughts one neural pathway at a time. In psychology there is a concept called neuroplasticity which essentially means that our brains, and more specifically our synaptic connections are flexible and subject to change. A pernicious example is the thought patterns and negative affirmations that depressives suffer from.
Picture your brain as an intricate network of roads. Not all roads are created equal. Some are highways which are high-speed, high-volume methods of transport. Some are city streets that are in good condition and can get you to important places at moderate speeds. Others are country roads, occasionally made of gravel and highly restrictive in terms of traffic and flow. The things that you’re good at, think of often, and habitually act upon are where your highways are linked to. These are the most commonly occurring behaviors and thought patterns. On the opposite end you can imagine what lies there. Newly acquired skills that have yet to be perfected, things that require conscious effort to pass through your mind, things that you just plain don’t think about.
Now imagine every thought, action, and behavior are paving crews. Each time you fire off that neurotransmitter you are effectively sending a construction crew down that road and they work to improve the pathway. Typically this is seen by neurons bunching up closer together to areas in your brain to facilitate more traffic and shortening the distance required to get from A to B. Better roads, faster travel, easier execution. So when a depressive say to themselves, “I hate my life” or “I’m not worth anything”, they are paving and improving upon those connections so that the brain doesn’t have to exert as much effort to get there. This is the example I give to clients and parents that I work with to explain how our thoughts and words impact our very own brain chemistry and cause both positive and negative effects. Our bodies have amazing methods of self-defense but that doesn’t mean they are impervious or are without critical flaws. This is especially true concerning the brain. It truly acts as a double-edged sword. This is essentially the danger of brainwashing and indoctrination. With enough repetition that is often combined with trauma, you can make a person believe damn near anything. Hopefully this helps to paint a picture at just how daunting Orwell’s quote really is.
But these things take time. As someone who has said “I wish I was dead” on countless occasions, I can offer the anecdotal evidence that this mindset didn’t happen to me overnight. It took years of repetition both reinforced by the thoughts, words, and actions of not only myself but others as well. . And it took an equal amount of time to begin to “deprogram” me. Which is the silver lining to all of this. Apart from trauma, (which can be at least partially, if not wholly resolved through various therapeutic treatments) you can call off some of those paving crews and put them on more beneficial jobs. With enough time, you can make your brain adapt and cluster in other places. Whenever I pick up my guitar and play, I’m strengthening the pathways to that muscle memory and simplifying future attempts, making my motions more fluid and confident. When someone gives me praise or says a kind word and I process it, I’m forcing my brain to try and make those good feelings happen faster and easier. On the flip side, every time I utter or think a negative thought about myself or dwell on an insult, I’m causing the same effect in my brain. Yet again I say to you, words have power.
In the coming installments I plan on providing examples and dissecting things that we encounter in every day life that cause our thought patterns and ultimately our own beliefs to change. For better or worse. One of the things I plan on focusing on is how words are subtly changed in the public sphere to alter your impressions of the topics so slightly that you don’t even notice. This is most notably present in politics and the media.
Think of the most recent United Airlines travesty. The word “reaccommodated” was used to describe what was essentially a violent removal of a passenger from an airplane. Now this is an overt example but the same theory applies. The PR department for United was attempting to alter your perception and dull your response and really just mislead you about what they actually did. Some, if not most examples we’ll examine, will not be this conspicuous. Some are stealthy, surreptitious, and exude such minute semantical differences that it doesn’t register on most people’s radars. But my purpose for this series is to hopefully change that for you and others and cause you to critically-think about the vocabulary choices you experience throughout your daily lives. Got examples that you’ve noticed? Post them up. Tell me about them. Let’s start a dialog about language and the power it wields over us. And hopefully by the end of this we’ll all have even just a little more reverence for the power of words.