Words are powerful. We use the term “magic words” playfully, as though words are not actually magical; yet, with the right string of carefully selected words, we can perform some truly astounding tasks: We can kill, we can heal, we can fight, we can build, we can destroy, we can divide, we can own, we can rise, we can fall, we can lie, we can reveal, we can obscure, we can explain, we can do so much and more.
In all of these functions, words merely form the basic tools used to derive these actions. There are many uses for words, and often the consumption is one-sided. Yes, a journalist may have written a news story, but then that writer may never interact with the hundreds of readers. Popular novels are often slung onto the market and garner a paycheck, all without the author ever having to come face-to-face with any readers. In this sense, the words have an effect, but not pragmatically, not instantly, not in a true sense of communication between two people. When we specify with a phrase like “our words,” the “our” there can hardly earn its ownership unless it is from our heart, out lips, to someone else’s ears.
When we speak, and when others listen, our words can have a few different effects, all of which are capable of profoundly affecting the hearer’s life.
We can use words to encourage. If someone has done something that is a good thing to do, or they have done it with an excellent measure of quality, we can affirm them for their efforts. Without this acknowledgment, they may never have known that what they have done was such a good thing, or that it is worth doing again. If the great actions of this world continue to go unrecognized, they stand less of a chance of being continued.
Whether it is the high-profile mud-slinging of politicians and celebrities or the hushed undertones shared between friends, insulting other people is an enjoyable, even profitable hobby for some, and an accidental bad habit for others. In either case, words hold the power to hurt, both on an immediate upsetting level and a deep-seated force to unravel self-esteem and cause true pain. Many can testify to the potentially devastating effects of even “mere” schoolyard teasing, which requires a positive source coming from someone else to balance out, lest the person grow up truly believing the negative comments. Words can create a stigma or unbelief that will stick around until somehow either proven wrong or overcome by relentless affirmation.
The most basic function of words is to convey ideas. This means that from as simple of an example as a small child trying to express what he or she desires, to the highly technical language used in advanced manuals for manufacturing machinery, words are the primary vessel through which important information is conveyed. Yet, in a wonderful opposing sense, words can also be used to describe locations we will never see with our own eyes, introduce us to people that do not even exist in flesh and blood, and describe exciting events that will never enter real history.
It is perhaps an ironic task to try and write in words about how our words affect others. While the topic can be endlessly debated and expounded upon, one point remains undeniable: Although we can question the manner in which our words affect others, we cannot deny that they, indeed, do affect.