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Sticks and Stones

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” goes a children’s taunt.  In reality it doesn’t work like that.  Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words may kill you, heal you, or save you.  After all, a judge’s words, “I sentence you to death,” have serious implications!  That’s why we’re going to look at the importance of words in this blog.

Specific words we use to define the problem also dictate the solution

The specific words used to define a problem frequently dictate the solution or conclusion to that problem.  For example, examine the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers:  A person who identifies the attackers as “freedom fighters” would most likely reach a significantly different conclusion on the best response than a person who identifies them as “terrorists.”

We see daily application of this principle in our political discourse with the “spin masters.”  We also see the ultimate result of this in the book “1984” by George Orwell.  In that book the “spin masters” have created a world where “bad” means “good” and “free” means “slave.”  Consider the three slogans of the Party, as proclaimed by The Ministry of Truth in that book:

  • War is peace
  • Freedom is slavery
  • Ignorance is strength.

Sound familiar?  Of course it does.  We do that today!  In a world of such double talk, it is very easy to lose sight of reality.  Used cars are no longer used cars, but “pre-owned” or “nearly new” cars.  The word “killer” no longer refers to someone who kills, but to something that’s really good or special, as in “killer app.”  “Bad” is a synonym for “good.”  And so on.  Examples abound by the dozen.

Words have intrinsic meaning

The words we use must have intrinsic meaning that a society accepts or the society cannot thrive.  For example, “apple” refers to a fruit of the apple tree.  When one person says to another, “I want an apple,” the common understanding of “apple” between the two allows for intelligent and consistent communication.  If, however, one of the two thinks that “apples” grow on fruit trees and the other thinks “apples” grow underground (ie. potatoes[1]), then it is impossible to have any intelligent communication.  There can be a lot of shouting and noise, but no communication; and a society cannot function without intelligent communication.

Oh, we have a lot of communication today!  We have cell phones, TV, radio, printed matter of all types, social networking, movies and so on.  But the question is, “Is it intelligent?  Or is it just noise?”  Have we sunk to just screaming at each other, talking over each other, slamming each other verbally, instead of maintaining a cooperative, intelligent dialog to achieve a common goal?

Words are charged with emotional meanings

Lastly, all the words we use to describe something also have an emotional dimension associated with them.  This emotional baggage associated with words frequently overshadows the “basic” dictionary meaning of the word and totally changes the complexion of the message.  For example, one can describe a girl as a “virgin” or a “slut.”  Both refer to girls, but the two words conjure up different images of a girl.  Now imagine three news stories about a rape.  One story describes the victim as a “girl”, the other as a “slut”, and the third as a “virgin.”  The reader will form three significantly different interpretations, conclusions, and opinions of the rape, the perpetrator, and the victim based on the word used to describe the victim.  We need to be careful what words we use when we define a situation.

We need to be careful to understand all the nuances of meaning lest we miss the truth buried in the message.  After all we are living in the age of the spin masters.


[1] Some languages refer to potatoes as apples of the ground.

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