Words Matter

Words Have Power
By Katherine Kerr, APR

We learn that words have power at an early age.

When someone we cherish and respect tells us he loves us, endorphins flood our bodies and we are happy. When a friend or sibling tells she hates us, we experience a different chemical reaction, the release of cortisol, and are devastated.

The armor of little ditties like, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and “I’m rubber, you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you,” doesn’t take the sting from hurtful words. We’ve seen how deadly words can be when used to bully someone who eventually decides suicide is an alternative to the poison of hurtful, hateful language.

Writers, politicians and marketers know the power of using the right words. Precise choices mean the difference between action and inaction, hope and hopelessness.

In journalism school, we were taught to use neutral words in an attempt to be fair and unbiased. The word “said” is a neutral word, as is “reported” and “stated.” The reader takes at face value, that the words that reportedly came out of a person’s mouth did so. It is up to the reader or the listener to interpret what the person meant based on the context provided.

When non-neutral words are selected, the impact can be much different. For example, “Patrick Henry wept, ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ ” The reader could interpret that as a cry of despair rather than a call to action.

Or, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,”mumbled President John F. Kennedy. The listener would think the president was confused, not that he was trying to motivate U.S. citizens to aspire to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Or, “Mr. Gorvachev, tear down this wall!,” pleaded President Ronald Reagan would be seen as a weak request instead of a demand that the Russian president to do right by the people of East Germany.

In recent events, we’ve seen word selections scrutinized and critiqued. When does a “crowd” or a “gathering” become a “protest,” “a riot” or “a melee” and who gets to decide?

Imagine the different reactions to reports that a police officer “laid the woman on the ground,” versus “took her to the ground, “pushed her to the ground,” “shoved her to the ground” or “wrestled her to the ground.” The word choices indicate an escalating show of force which can spark support or outrage toward the woman and the officer.

Word selections can undermine or bolster the words preceding and following them. For example, “I love you,” she said. “I love you,” she wailed. “I love you,” she laughed. “I love you,” she sneered.” I love you,” she argued. “I love you,” she insisted. “I love you,” she whispered. “I love you,” she shouted.

Changing just one word significantly alters the entire meaning of a powerful three-word declaration.

Words inspire, inform and inflame.

Be thoughtful; be responsible. Choose your words carefully.

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