Language is powerful. Ever since I was a child, I have been obsessed by words and language. I guess for this reason I became a linguist. It also must be said that the very first words spoken were from God. He spoke the world into existence. So words belong to God. However, all of us are tricked into thinking that words are not important, because they fill all those little mundane moments in our lives.
The other day I was in a local store and witnessed how a little boy manipulated his father to buy him a toy with words, tears and stomping of feet. With this example, one can easily see how a small child of about 40 pounds can sway his father, a man of about 200 pounds, with spoken words and body language.
In our world today, words really matter. So when we speak, our words express our views, but also provide an intimate glimpse of ourselves. For example, a gentleman in a suit and tie who is using foul language might make others judge him as being uneducated, ill-mannered and even crass. A person who overuses the word “awesome” in his speech renders his thoughts and words meaningless. Using bad grammar in a job interview can cost one a lucrative future in a good company.
Expressing ourselves with kindness and a smile might endear us to others. Peppering our conversations with expressions like “God willing” show the importance of religion in our lives. At the same time, strong words can offend or hurt others.
Our leaders should be especially conscious of how and what they say. Words do matter. Words include not just terms but also body movements that can modify the interpretation of our ideas. In our world today a war of words or official expressions used thoughtlessly and callously might lead us to the brink of a nuclear war.
Tweets or emails, our written language of today, sent out insensitively can cause tension between specific persons, groups and even countries. In addition, words not carefully chosen can be misinterpreted by journalists, constituencies and demographic groups.
We are called to be precise and careful about what we say and how we say it. For example, the manner that one speaks with one’s movements and body language can alter the meaning of terms spoken. A husband who does not hug and kiss his wife when he tells her he loves her might be accused of not caring for her at all.
Even words not spoken may cause listeners to question the seriousness of the speaker. For example, if one offers a clarification days later but does so in a very nonchalant way he may influence others to not take him as being genuine. As another example, speaking about an important subject like discrimination after touching on other subjects makes the important topic of racism seem more like an aside or just another point in a list to be given.
In addition, words not heeded at an important moment in history can also cause serious problems and even war. For example, on July 12, 1917 Our Lady of Fatima told Lucia, a poor peasant girl, that another world war was coming if people did not stop offending God, and one even worse would begin in the reign of Pope Pius XI.
The Virgin Mary also added that at the same time the world would see a night illuminated by an unknown light and all will know that this is the great sign of God. The war going on at the time of the apparition was World War I and Pius XI was not the pontiff. The “unknown” light was seen on January 25, 1938, decades later, and described by scientists as the “aurora borealis.” Forty-five days later, Hitler invaded Austria starting World War II in the reign of Pope Pius XI. This war could have been prevented if the world had taken to heart the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Book of Proverbs is a treatise on talk. Essentially words give life or words can bring death — one has to choose: “The mouth of the just yields wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut off” (Proverbs 10: 31).
Words that you use can bring encouragement, hope, peace, unity, wisdom. But if your words bring death, they will be terms of anger, malice, jealousy, division, contempt, racism, violence, judgment and condemnation. May God help us all to consider words as something that really does matter!
Father Gus Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Norristown.