We learn to speak without understanding the power of language. We just know that we start to associate specific combinations of sounds to the result that we want – combining sounds to produce ‘juice’ gets us a sweet, cold beverage that slakes our thirst. So we say it again when our mouth is dry and we need liquid. Other sound combinations get results too – uttering ‘mommy’ or ‘daddy’ gets lots of wonderful attention, hugs and kisses. Score!
Somewhere along the line we experience the pain of words too. A casually repeated word like ‘dummy’ gains a lecture about not hurting others perhaps. But do we really understand the power of words yet?
Learning that certain words have specific associations to a place – the playground has looser rules than the classroom – teaches us a level of appropriateness, but not necessarily understanding. We have just enough to know how to be hurtful without knowing why we might be hurtful.
I love words – their sound, combining them for just the right effect – I love to read them and to write them. I want to understand them, not just use them. When I am trying to make a point with people who don’t have the same intense relationship to words I like to use an example. If you need a group to listen you can say different things – examples run from ‘Be quiet’ to ‘Shut up’. These are essentially the same command but they have very different connotations for the listeners. If you would like to show authority, but not disrespect toward the group, then your option is clearly ‘be quiet’, ‘quiet, please’ or something along that line.
I know that I cannot expect others to love words as I do. But this example usually helps to gain understanding. In English, we have many options to say something, to get our point across – all valid – which makes choosing the right option for the circumstance an important step. What do we intend to convey? Who is our audience? What is important within the message that is also important to the audience?
There is so much that should go into word choice, too much for one blog post. I need a reminder now and then that words have alternate meanings, even regional meanings sometimes, and that the point of combining sounds into words and words into sentences and paragraphs is to communicate. Communicating isn’t just about what I want to say, but about how the person or group who will receive the message will perceive it. The right word has great power, and the wrong word – well, there is usually a long list of trending social media topics about the famous folks who chose the wrong word at the wrong time.
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