Language is often paired with words like “evoke” or “bewitch” with its ability to “cast spells” over us. It can make us laugh, cry, love, hate, run, stay, fight, give in, believe, distrust, move or stop. Yes, there is magic and power in language. There is power in what is said and what’s left unsaid. It can reveal or conceal messages.
The power and magic in language also changes based on the audience and context, so let’s start there.
As I wave my magic pen, words will appear on the page. Those words will cast mystical trances over some and act as instant repulsion spells to others. The same words have different magic for different audiences.
One person can call me “girl” and I revel in it. Another does it and I am patronized and offended. A man calling me “hotness” is a compelling proposition from one, and potential sexual harassment from another.
I can listen to the same television dialogue or poetry as another and be left untouched, whereas the person beside me may have been massaged into a frenzy of emotions.
The “I have a dream. . .” speech was visionary magic to millions, but to the KKK it was nothing short of illusionary or delusional. One song is seen as “killing me softly” to some and pure noise to others.
The situation, or context, is also important.
Pretend that you receive a rock. If it was hurled through your front window, you would contextualize the message entirely differently than if you received it wrapped in a small box. Say you did get it in a box, how would you make sense of it without language?
You’d likely want some words included with it, to help you understand the gesture, and who it was from.
The interpretations are endless, but for the sake of example, you could see the “gift” as highly negative or positive. At one extreme the message could be, “Santa ran out of coal,” or at the other it could say, “This rock is from the bottom of the Grand Canyon, its depth is nothing compared to yours: you’ve touched me deeply.” Somewhere in the middle, the message could express appreciation with the words, “You rock!”
Language can stir the soul and the imagination, but we can’t forget the power of what can also be concealed.
Political spin, marketing messages, and public relations language can even make the noxious, acceptable, through mystifying and bewildering words.
Waterboarding is “simply a controlled acute episode,” not torture. Mass terminations are “right-sizing organizations to compete effectively in a global economy.” A tiny house becomes a “cozy” one. “I didn’t inhale” explains so much. “Have a nice day,” when said following, “Do you want fries with that?” rings hollow.
Closer to home, sometimes unwittingly, we entrance or seduce ourselves and others with our words. We use metaphors to simplify the complex, but at the same time they can throw us off track, sometimes because of how we want to hear them.
Men can say their love is like a rose. Most women would think about the beautiful petals and smell. How about the sharp thorns? And how many roses has he given out that week already?
Sometimes we can blame the sender, other times we have to blame ourselves. Sometimes we hear only the parts we want to hear, distorting and discarding parts that don’t fit with our current thinking.
Similarly, what about the words that aren’t said or written? I have been brought to my knees waiting for words that never came: the path of my life changed by them. Sometimes, it isn’t until the spell is broken that we realize the huge important messages that lay between the lines, pregnant silences that could have saved us a lot of time and heartache.
Language evokes images, thoughts, hopes, dreams, new realities, and can act as a catalyst to change.
Think for a moment of the times you were moved by words. Was it a classic like “I love you” or “It’s a girl!” “You’ve got the job,” “I believe in you,” or “I’m sorry”? Perhaps it was more cryptic like, “The plot thickens,” “I’m not done with you yet,” or “At last . . .”
Alternatively, think of the horrible words that you’ve heard or said (which I won’t even try to reproduce here) that stirred a cauldron of venom or hurt inside you or others (or both).
I remember my mother saying, “Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.” She lied. At least in my experience, the wounds left by physical transgressions have healed much faster.
There is power and magic in language, what we say (and don’t say), how and when we say it and to whom.
As Spiderman acknowledges, “With great power must come great responsibility.”
Choose your language wisely.