It’s interesting to think about what words really are. They’re air passing through vocal chords. They’re pixels on a page. They’re a collection of sounds and shapes that we have collectively decided have meaning. And we bestow certain words with tremendous power.
In the comments of my post about the reaction to The Onion and the Twitterverse finding enemies, we got to talking about the power of words, who can say them, and how much intent matters when they’re said.
Why, exactly, do certain words carry so much power? I don’t mean that in terms of history, which I understand, or why people take offense to the most hateful words, which I also understand. People are right to be offended by them.
I’m talking about, at a basic level, how did we all collectively arrive at deciding that these words or any words have totemic power?
The reason we decide on certain words to channel such power, I think, is that some words are vessels for very real and complex power disparities that exist in the real world. All of the real hate, sexism, and racism in the world are bestowed upon a few words that can stand in for forces much greater than the syllables themselves, to the point that if you say them out loud you are summoning those powers and placing yourself in league with them.
It’s still kind of a strange thing though, when you stop and think about it. Imagine a perfectly non-racist or non-sexist performance artist stepping onto a New York subway and shouting certain words to no one in particular, with no intention other than to say them. Why, exactly, should that person be beat up? What if that person doesn’t even understand English or the what the words mean? (Note: I am not suggesting anyone does this).
When you say certain words in the wrong context or with ill intent, you are summoning an invisible army behind you. You are assuming the mantle of the power of hate, which usually goes unspoken. You are aligning yourself with an ideology people are trying to stamp out. Use them and they may well try to stamp you out. They may be sounds and letters, but we’ve decided they should mean much more than that.
In some sense words really are magic spells. Say the right syllables and you assume tremendous power. But that too is an illusion, because the words themselves don’t actually make you stronger.
There’s real power in the world, there is real racism and sexism and oppression. People have suffered from these abuses.
The words themselves, though, are a string of sounds and some scratches on a page. They only have the power that we have collectively decided they should possess.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations!
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter and check out my guide to writing a novel.
Art: A vanitas still life with a candle, an inkwell, a quill pen, a skull and books by Michael Conrad Hirt