“Only” words.

"Only" Words, hand-lettered by Dani Kelley
Don’t worry up your mind — people are sick and mean sometimes. They’re only words. They’re only words.

~Ryan Adams, “Words”


I absolutely adore language. Particularly the English language, since I know no other.

But honestly, just the concept of language in and of itself. The ability to communicate with sophistication, to create alphabets and words and sentence structures and literary forms and analysis — all to communicate thoughts, ideas, and feelings that are often too complex for language. But we try anyway.

I am in constant awe over the sheer power of words.

Words have played a huge part in my life for all of my life — even as a child, when I often didn’t have the words to explain my joys, fears, anxieties and thrills. Who am I kidding? To this day, I struggle to find the right words that communicate what’s in my mind, in my heart, the thoughts and feelings that well up inside of me until I feel that I am about to burst with something inexplicable so I’d better figure out how to articulate it to save my sanity.

I remember being taught the shape of letters. I struggled so hard with this (which might make some of you laugh, if you’ve ever seen my nearly impeccable handwriting now). My lines weren’t straight, my curves were zigzags, but I pressed on — because something deep within me knew that words made the world go ’round, and that meant that learning to write would help me keep my world spinning.

This conviction of the power of words has grown slowly, though it’s always been a part of me.

Which is why I am always baffled when something hurtful or hateful is said — and when it is taken to heart, the defense is, “It’s only words!”

Harriet Jones, from the BBC series "Doctor Who"

Don’t you think she looks tired?

Let us never forget that the office of Harriet Jones was brought down with only six little words.

Doctor Who aside, why do we pretend that words are not powerful? Particularly when they have been used to degrade, silence, shame, belittle, or deceive? And why do we pretend that the intent with which the words were spoken overrides and invalidates any pain caused by them?

Silencing one another is not a solution. Hurting and shaming one another is not a solution. It doesn’t lead to a joining of minds or hearts.

Words mean things. We all know this. There’s a difference between annoyance and rage, apathy and ecstasy, dislike and hatred, interest and love.

Words can bring a smile to someone’s face. They can buoy a person’s soul, bring a little light where there has been great darkness. They can challenge thoughts and ideas that have not been thoroughly examined. They can inspire, build hope, bring peace and strength.

Words can also hurt. They can feed insecurities, reinforce shame, silence those to whom we simply don’t want to listen. Even when spoken with the best of intentions, when chosen poorly, words can deeply wound the ones we are trying to help.

And when someone works up the courage to say, “Your words were hurtful,” find out why. Play back to yourself in your head what was said. Reread what you wrote. Consider the words you chose, then consider the person who heard those words. Don’t cling to the belief that you’re not a bad person and therefore cannot have hurt someone. Don’t retreat to the notion that words hold no weight simply because they have no mass. Don’t raise the flimsy shield of “but I didn’t mean it like it sounded!” You chose the words you used, for good or for ill, with great care or little care. It’s too late — they’re gone, they have been heard, and they have done damage.

Sometimes the most powerful words of all are the words, “I am so sorry. I chose my words poorly.”

Communication is important. It’s absolutely vital in our lives. Let’s be gracious with our words. Honest, kind, and understanding. And when someone uses their words to let us know that something is wrong, let’s listen and try to learn.

Words are never “only” words.


What do you think? How have words impacted your life?

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2 thoughts on ““Only” words.

  1. Pingback: Love edifies. | light • love • music

  2. Pingback: Because I can’t not: writing in community. | crooked neighbor, crooked heart.

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