As far back as 1862 the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me” was acknowledged in print to already be an old adage. I wonder how long we’ve been telling ourselves that? That words don’t really hurt, when in fact they often are the source of deep-seated insecurities that many of us carry through life.
Dumb, ugly, skinny, useless, unwanted, weird, or unloved are a few distinct words that likely echo around many of our minds. Small, short, fat, or tall, it doesn’t matter what end of what spectrum we were accused of being on, or even if those words were intended to cause harm or were thought of as harmless fun, we end up owning these things.
Some of us respond to these words by living them out, surrendered to the judgement proclaimed by people unfit to judge, we accept that we are dumb or ugly, and we make all our decisions and choices in life accordingly. Others of us will respond to these words with rebellion, doing everything we can to prove that we are ‘not’ that, even to a point of dysfunction where we aggressively prove those words wrong to people who have honestly never seen you as small or useless.
Both approaches are ineffective, they isolate us and keep us attached to the “name” we were given and continue to be hurt by. It’s no wonder we made up a truth in that “sticks and stones” phrase that helps us pretend that it didn’t hurt us, or worse, pretend that our words really didn’t hurt anyone else.
Even earlier than that phrase, another one was written in a very famous book “But the tongue can no man tame.” This idea is presented with the imagery of a small rudder that maneuvers a large ship. Our words have more impact than we might think. Even the words we speak in private, or mutter under our breath can be unintentionally heard and believed by people we never intended to harm.
I remember the first day my kids went to school, they were so excited for school, they were hungry to learn, and they for better and worse thought their teachers knew even more than mom and dad. But inevitably, the day comes when every kid comes home with the words “school is boring” on their lips. Who told them that? Likely they overheard a cool sounding older kid say it, and now, school is a fight where it once was a joy.
I’ll save the ample diatribe that accompanies this example, and maneuver back to the point, words matter!
In our present world, insults, accusation and calls to censor the words of others who may disagree with a given left or right point of view are all too common. We are distinctly aware of the words of others, and simultaneously oblivious to the words we are using.
Anyone who has struggled with the hurt of words would undoubtedly never wish that same hurt onto anyone. But are we willing to curb our own language? Does our negative commentary trickle down to ears we never meant to hear? Does our colourful vocabulary trouble, confuse, or defile the innocent ones sitting at the table behind us? The power of words is clear, perhaps we should be a little more responsible for our own too.