The Power of Words

As I sat under a tree beside a chuckling stream it occurred to me – not for the first time – just how marvelous language is. To be able to paint a mental picture of a scene and share it is truly a thing of wonder and beauty.

Shakespeare wrote of the rose by any other name, and who knows how many books have been written about it, using the very tool itself. How cyclical and magical is that? And speaking of magic, Rowling had the inimitable Dumbledore tell us that language is an inexhaustible source of it, capable of wounding or soothing. How very true. It can be a club or a scalpel, depending on the speaker or the subject.

My mum taught me to read at the age of three, partly to provide me with the greatest of gifts, but also to occupy me while she undertook her caring responsibilities. And what a gift. I have visited innumerable places I will never see, I have shared in adventures galore from the safety of my bed, and, most importantly, despite my illness, I learned empathy, however imperfectly.

Thousands of writers have taught me about language, but my first encounter with its darker side came in secondary/high school when I read 1984; possibly around the year that very year. Doublethink, newspeak, Ingsoc, the concepts thrilled and horrified me in equal measure. Orwell taught me to love and respect, and sometimes fear, the use of language.

But it was a work colleague that schooled me on the use of language as an everyday political tool. He showed me how subtle writers can be in manipulating their readers. The example he used was a news article from one of the less rabid right wing tabloids in Britain. In it, the journalist was describing a disturbance at a detention centre for asylum seekers. He wrote that the captives (I won’t say inmates) attacked the wire fences, while the police USED fire hoses to drive them off. Just reflect on that a moment. Attacked. Used.

The first term denotes violence and threat, this is designed to make readers fearful of asylum seekers. It has a very particular purpose. Then ‘used’, a very neutral phrase for a violent action. It takes the sting out of the police response, it neutralises it, normalises it. Brutality made safe, creepily sanitised.

He really made me think. He made me examine not just the words, but the intention of those words. As with so many in my life, he gave me a gift. So, my advice is to read very carefully what people say. Sometimes it will be a mirror, sometimes an axe, at other times a salve, and, most dangerous of all, a smokescreen. The powerful use language every day as newspeak, to limit our insight and mask their exploitation and violence. Our weapon is awareness.

All this I thought as a gentle breeze caressed my face, as I sat under that ageless oak, drinking in the soothing sounds of the water.

Oh, the joy of words.

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