The Power of Words

Posted on June 29, 2014


While swapping some ideas with a friend, we found ourselves dealing with new spellings of old familiar words, Beijing for Peking, Sri Lanka for Ceylon, and so on.

In my field of studies, we now write about Inkas instead of Incas, Nahua instead of Aztec, Amerindians instead of Indians. In Africa one no longer sees Rhodesia but Zimbabwe, and in the Middle East Persians are now Iranians. The list probably could be extended into hundreds of once familiar spellings, now changed.

Actually, I’m surprised that the Near East, the Middle East, and the Far East have survived since they are Eurocentric in the extreme, describing the world from the perspective of London or Paris or Rome. Everything is east of them–some near, some far, but east.

Even an old familiar term like the First Voyage of Christopher Columbus is now the first voyage, stripping the great explorer of some of his dignity and fame.
Negro in this country was transformed into Black and then African American over the past few generations.

Booty doesn’t mean pirate loot any more, a cell is a wireless phone not a biological item, and texting would have been handled as a spelling error or some grammatical gaffe by my grade school teachers.

What’s to make of all this? Is it just cultural whimsy? Political correctness gone to seed? A slap at imperialism and colonialism? All of the above?

Is there any power involved here? Do we invoke the old nursery rhyme “sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never harm me?”

Or do we turn to the first verse in the Book of John in the Bible, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” or perhaps verse three of the Book of Genesis, “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.”

The interpretation of those verses is obvious. God spoke the world into existence and so there is power in words.

The nursery rhyme is wrong. With our tongue and words we can harm and disclaim, or edify and build up. The Apostle James (3:5) commented that “…the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!”

Some of the greatest battles across time in fact have been fought with words, not swords. The old adage attests, “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

Crane Brinton, one of twentieth century’s best students of the French Revolution of 1789, summed up the coming and causes of the Revolution with the pithy assessment, “no ideas, no revolution.”

In fact, who controls the language often exerts control over social issues, and sometimes even political and economic ones. Karl Marx gave Marxism a place in the modern political landscape with his writings, including the mammoth Das Kapital which no one reads. But his short Communist Manifesto is a manual of sorts for radical socialism that thousands and perhaps millions have read and put into practice.

You know what the official history of the American Civil War is, right? No, not the Civil War or the war against Yankee aggression or some such other title, but The War of the Rebellion. The winners usually not only win on the battlefield, but also win in the battle of words and memory. The South may rise again (and my great grandfather fought on the losing side), but not in the labeling of that greatest of all conflagrations in our history.

When Franklin Roosevelt made his Inaugural Address in 1933, he lifted up the spirits of a people beaten down by the Depression by one of the most famous phrases spoken by any of our Presidents over time. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” And then, always the activist President, he declared a bank holiday, closed the banks for a week or two to keep anymore from going bankrupt with people’s savings, and kicked back to find more ideas to drive this country forward and out of its massive slump.

We have invariably been lifted up by words. Martin Luther King, Jr., when speaking to thousands of civil rights marchers in front of the Lincoln Memorial in the summer of 1963, gave voice to his vision of a new country, where all would share in its bounty, its freedom, its promise. “I have a dream” still echoes among us all, far more than the memory of the marches, the bloodshed, the bombings, and the hatred. King lifted the argument up to the level of Christian discourse, where peace, not violence, was the context for changing the segregated world of the United States.

Not too long ago, in my jail ministry, I finished a lesson—a harangue really—on how it was absolutely imperative to be well founded in the Bible, to read Scripture on a daily basis, to study it, to internalize it, to, well, yada, yada, yada I went on.

As I was waiting at the end of the hour for the jailers to let me out, one of my “congregation” said “I can’t read.”

I was speechless, dumbfounded by such an admission that took some courage to make. How to respond? What to do?

“I quit school in the fifth grade to work and I’ve been driving logging trucks. I’m forty years old,” he said, looking at me squarely in the eye, not looking for pity, or sympathy, but for help.

“When do you get out?”

“In December.”

I wrote down my email address and gave it to him.

“Get in touch with me when you get out and I’ll see that you get set up in a literacy program.”

“It’s important!” I added.

He looked at the email address. I couldn’t leave a phone number or address since it was against jail rules.

It didn’t make much of a difference what I wrote on the sheet of paper. He couldn’t read it.

He understood my quandary and said, “I’ll get one of my friends to read it.”
We left it at that since the jailer had opened the door and it was time to leave.

I thought about it a bit. Being illiterate is like seeing the world in black and white, or being blind, or deaf. I realized how much words, strung together as prose or poetry, expressing everything from the noblest sentiments to the basest garbage out of one’s heart and mind, do indeed carry power.

Not to leave you with such a serious note, I thought of new word spellings and wondered if one of my favorite items on a Chinese restaurant menu has changed to Beijing Duck, and, if so, it is a more nationalistic or communist with its new name. I hope not. Some things are better left alone.

Published in my column The Port Rail in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday July 6, 2014, as The Power of Words, Changes in Meanings

Posted in: Life in America