Use Your Words

The last two weeks have really made me think about words, what they mean and how we use them.

Of course, writers think about words a lot.  

We started off with Mark Twain, or rather, the announcement that Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books had produced a test run of Twain's work "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" that would be acceptable for schools. One of the most frequently banned books, they make a change: removing the N-word.

Just a few days later, in the wake of the tragic shooting in Arizona, many trying to deal with the event began pointing fingers and condemning recent political rhetoric such as Sarah Palin's use of 'crosshairs' to target Democratic districts. In response, she issued a statement that included the following. 
"Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible."
A frenzy over her use of the term 'Blood Libel' - a phrase historically associated with the justification of genocide against Jews - ensued.

Both incidents illustrate the often-underestimated power of words.  

The words we choose say a lot about who we are and who we were. The words I choose may not be the same as the words you choose. We try to deflect their importance - "sticks and stones" - but that's largely untrue. Words can hurt or heal, oppress or celebrate, obstruct or direct.

Written or spoken, words connect us, inform us. They move us. 

Words engage us. They remind us of who we've been, tell others who we are, and sometimes shape where we are going.  

This is one of the tragedies of editing works like Huckleberry Finn. The change removes an element of our history that we must remember. It assumes that our children cannot or should not understand the racial dynamics of our recent past - still relevant to our conversations about race today.

This is one of the reasons that we should not forget what words mean. Palin's choice to use that phrase should tell us something important: either she knew its history and didn't care, or she failed to do a little research and used it because she liked the way it sounds.

There are responsibilities that come with words. The responsibility to have a conversation with your child about a word you might find unpleasant, so that they can understand why. The responsibility to understand when inflammatory rhetoric may be needed to bring about real change, and when it is gratuitous or insincere. There is also a responsibility to use words where there is injustice.

Today, nearly every time I turned on the radio I heard a fragment of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream.

Dr. King was an amazing man who did many brave, amazing things. I do not mean to understate the necessity or importance of action. 

But it was Dr. King's words that followed me all day, his words that I remember memorizing in school. The world has changed in the decades since that speech, and his words remind us in part of the roots of that change, what it took. They inspire us.

You don't have to be a blogger or an author or a speechmaker to think about words. 

Use them responsibly. Use them correctly. And, like Dr. King, use them to inspire people in whatever you do.


  1. Wonderful wonderful post. Insightful and inspiring.

    Words have the power we give them. For good or for ill.

  2. Very thought provoking post - excellent!

  3. I got very choked up at the end. :) Thank you.