can break my bones, but words will never harm me. It’s a useful rhyme to teach children to ignore verbal taunts. By denying the power of words to hurt us, we can tell others that their efforts are useless, and we stand strong against their attacks.
This comic from xkcd tells the real story. If you “hover” your mouse over the strip, you can see the truth: “words can make me think I deserved it.”
Words have power, and words have meaning. Whether written or spoken, why are words so essential to us? Words explain, they shine, they bind us together and tear us apart. They tell the stories of the ages, into the past and into the future.
Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning. ~ Maya Angelou
What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic. ~ Carl Sagan
As noted above by Angelou, meaning may be created by tone of voice. Consider, for example, the ways a person might state “John Boehner is a strong leader.” They may sound earnest; they may sound sarcastic. Their tone of voice lets us know their intent.
The specific platform of delivery can provide information for us, too. If we know a “news” item was published by the Onion, we expect it to be tongue in cheek, even if otherwise it is completely believable. Words have meaning. And yet, a word in isolation may have little power. Because words can have multiple meanings, and because humans use words imprecisely, context is everything.
Even when we are careful about which words we use, misunderstandings may arise. Consider a minor celebrity saying, “I picked up a fan this week.” What did she mean? Did she buy an appliance with rotating blades, or did she gain a new admirer? Much more is needed to understand her meaning.
Words we think of as similar in meaning, in reality may be substantially different. For example, “eager” is not the same as “anxious,” though many people will note they are anxious for some event about which they are happy, not nervous. Again, context is key.
Speaking of the difference between justice and revenge, Ron Nikkel says,
Whenever I speak of justice, even with judges and lawyers, I find it necessary to clarify that the meaning of justice is more than a forensic determination of guilt or innocence, that it is beyond crime and consequence, and that it is not simply fairness and equality and proper procedure. I am trying to become more careful with the words I use because the meanings of words like justice, love, hate, grace, honesty, truth, good, evil and morality are critically important in our world of contemporary tolerance. Words aren’t ours simply to fill a quiet space; or to cast aspersions and insinuate suspicion without sounding negative; or to build sentences and paragraphs that are dense and stupid but sound profound; or to say one thing while meaning quite another. Words are not “just words” unless they are used transparently with integrity, grace and meaning for the common good.
Context is provided by surrounding words and statements. But context also comes from the speaker and our relationship to him or her. “I love you” from a small child is a very different statement than “I love you” from a sweetheart or spouse. Racial epithets sometimes are accepted when used by a member of the race, as we often hear about “the n word.” That word is not acceptable from Paula Deen because the context is wrong.
Written media suffer in their ability to communicate tone, making contextual understanding harder. As my friend Alan B. Craig states in his book “Understanding Virtual Reality” (with William R. Sherman),
Arguably, the experience of reading the book belongs both to the writer-of-words and to the reader, making both coauthors of the experience.
Both the author and the reader contribute to the experience. The author cannot choose, in isolation, the reader’s experience.
Imagine writing something poking fun of a particular hobby, and assuming the reader would experience it as meant, with no harm intended. The reader’s sense of attachment and ownership about that hobby may color their response. Once I witnessed a reader’s explosive reaction when another blog commenter made fun of Harley Davidson riders. No one else of the dozens of readers registered the same kind of emotional reaction. The reader who did react was a Harley rider who’d had a life-changing crash. His emotional attachment was stronger than the writer could have imagined.
A similar co-authorship of experience happens when we choose to give someone the benefit of the doubt, based on prior contact. The same words that might hurt me from a prickly relative might be tolerated from a close friend. My friend Beth and I have been through a lot together. She knows the best and worst of me. When she has something to say, even when critical, I consider it carefully rather than reacting defensively.
Alternatively, if my experience with someone has been of frequent criticism or correction, I’ll be quick to assume that their expressions are critical or correcting. This is true even if the author believes what they are saying is in jest.
Our words are powerful. As Jodi Picoult has said
words are like nets – we hope they’ll cover what we mean, but we know they can’t possibly hold that much joy, or grief, or wonder.
We have a special responsibility to use words carefully in writing, because we are only one author of that experience. We should not assume our words alone are sufficient to define our meaning. Even if the interaction between reader and author is a one-time experience, we need to lead our readers carefully to our intent. If we have longer-term relationships with our readers, we need to consider what they get from us in the larger context. This way they can give us the benefit of the doubt when needed. That helps them as readers, as well as us as authors.