The Power of Words

Words are powerful. They create images in our minds, feelings in our hearts; they can transport us to another time or place, they can build us up or tear us down. The language we use is important. It shapes attitudes and beliefs. Word usage intrigues me.

Language can keep you stuck in your adequate mindset and reality, or help you transform into an excellent mindset and reality.

My introduction to that fact was in the mid-70s as women’s libbers started removing the letters “man” and ”men” from the ending of job or position titles. Mailman became mail person. Chairman became chair or chairperson. I flippantly pointed out that person needs modification too since “son” represents the male gender. Does “person” become “perpeople” to avoid gender bias?

Then my awareness expanded to include Steven Biko, an anti-apartheid activist, who argued at his trial that the word black was derogatory, especially when used by whites. He noted that it was reserved for the bad things in our society like black magic and being the black sheep of the family. To contrast how the word “black” impacted Apartheid South Africa, let’s look at some of its positive uses: “in the black” for being solvent; black tie is very formal; oil is black gold; black belt is the highest achievement. For better or worse, the word shapes people’s attitudes and beliefs.

I’ve thought about the power of words since then. Meanings can be subtle. Do you see the difference between ”Look at what you did!” and “Look at what happened!” as far as where the focus of the action is? The first feels like blame the second feels like acknowledgment. Subtle, huh. Or, here’s another example: The boss could say “We did it!” — or he could say “You did it!” Which sounds like stronger leadership?

Some of the subtlety is in how you take responsibility for your “stuff”. Which is more true: “I can’t afford that.” or “I’d rather spend my money in other ways”? Are you guilty of saying that you don’t have time for something when the reality is you are spending your time in other ways? It’s important to your integrity to speak the truth. First, you have to recognize the truth.

Being more precise as another reason to be mindful of your language. When I was in Toastmasters decades ago I remember one of my speeches was about banning the word “got”. Avoiding ambiguity was the thought behind that ban. “Got milk?” could better be asked “Have you drunk milk lately?” or “May I borrow a cup of milk?”, or even “Is your cat nursing now?” — that kind of specificity is what “got” avoids.

Words shape our thoughts as much as our thoughts shape our words. You can talk yourself into believing the best or worst of a situation with the use of “always” and “never”, for example. A situation can be made worse with your black and white language. “Don’t believe everything you think” is another way of saying that.

Getting your words and thoughts to align is important to your life experience. John Kennedy changed the world with his words about getting a man on the moon and Martin Luther King changed segregation in the U.S. with his words; you can change your world with your words. How can you transform your life through your words and thoughts?

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