I like words. Actually I like words a great deal. I like short words like pox and long words like quintessential. I like new words like blog and old words like cleave. I like words that make me smile like incunabula and words that roll around in my mouth like mellifluous. I like words for the sound they make like blast and words for what they mean like grace.
We are immersed in words everyday: spoken words, printed words, thought words, sung words. Even when we are asleep there are words in our dreams. I was trying to estimate how many words I come into contact with in an average day and was completely defeated by it: there must be thousands not to mention all the words which I use! Our days are full of throw away words like breakfast and words that linger like love. I am writing this in the wake of the tragedies in France when the prevalence of words is very apparent: the sheer number of words that have been written and spoken and thought as we have tried to come to terms with the events that unfolded in Paris and elsewhere. It also reminds us of the power of words: words in the hands of a master can paint a picture every bit as vivid as a brush in an artist’s hands. This power means that words can be used for good and ill, to heal and to maim. It has always struck me that one of the stupidest adages which we trot out is ‘sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never harm us’. Broken bones usually heal but words can inflict lasting damage, damage to people’s hearts and minds, damage to people’s bodies when they lead to actions, when they create a climate of hate and fear in which murder becomes possible. The de-humanising way in which Jews were spoken about in Nazi Germany was vital in the road to the death camps. The words spoken in the Truth and Reconciliation Committee were critical in preventing a blood bath in the aftermath of Apartheid. We certainly need to extremely wise and considered in the words we use to respond to events such as those in France.
The Bible is clear about this power of words: the power to create – Genesis gives us an account of creation in which God said and the world came into being – and the power to destroy – think of the crowds shouting ‘crucify’ which played a part in Jesus’ journey to the cross. The book of Proverbs is full of wisdom about living and has much to say about words: ‘Death and life are in the power of the tongue’ (18.21)for ‘Rash words are like sword thrusts’ whereas ‘Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body’ (16.24). Indeed the Bible takes the power of words so seriously that it tells us that one day we will be held accountable for all the words we have used (e.g. Matthew 12.36).
So let’s remember that words are not merely sounds or marks on a page but things of enormous power and seek to use them wisely and well. ‘Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.’ (Psalm 19.14)
Revd Rebecca Fardell