“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” We’ve all heard this rhyme many times in our lives, and there’s definitely truth to it. While people may call us names or use harsh words, it is up to us how we feel about them. Words, unlike physical objects, do not have to hurt us. At the end of the day, they’re just words, mere sounds coming from the mouth of another. What damage can minuscule sound waves cause?
And yet, there is something fascinating about harsh words, particularly swear words.
At their core, they are nothing other than words, right? They mean nothing until we give them meaning. Language, though organically developed, is completely arbitrary. If all of us agreed to it, we could start calling computers “griltarings” or “tribos” or any other combination of consonants and vowels that we wanted. There is no objective name for anything, only an agreed upon word with an agreed upon definition. Words have meaning—and power—because we give them such.
In this way, words are not simply sound waves coming from the mouth of another; behind them and giving them life is an entire world of meaning. While most common swear words have lost their umph with overuse, we can still see what I’m talking about in racial or ethnic slurs. The reason that they are so powerful—and contrary to nursery rhymes, do in fact hurt people—is because they come from a world of hatred, bigotry, and oppression. In using any one of these words, we are not simply saying consonants and vowels, we are conjuring up history and meaning and emotions that are wildly offensive. They may just be words, but there is a history of “sticks and stones” behind them.
Some words, despite being just words, do have power to hurt people. And we all know what words these are.
But what about those words that are not overtly offensive, that do not immediately hit us like “sticks and stones,” but have a slower, less detectible effect on us? What about those words that we use all of the time, those words that are seemingly normal, but actually undermine who we are as Christians?
This is the question I ask in this week’s video reflection. Looking at five words that we use often, I want to encourage us to think more about the words we use and how we use them. Words have power, and we should always be wary of what that power is doing to us.