Have you ever given someone your word? Is your word your bond? Why specifically do we use these expressions when we talk about promises? What is it about a word that’s so important that we can trust it so much? I suppose it makes an idea more concrete. We can think that we want to do something for someone, but what good is it until we transform that thought into a word either by speaking it or writing it down. Once the thought’s out in the world we’re committed to it.
Think about how important the words to swear and oath are. And yet what do they refer to but simply saying some words? And why would we refer to swear (or curse) words, if they weren’t powerful words that we should limit our use of?
And that just doesn’t just go for promising to help our friends move apartment. A politician may have an idea, but until that idea becomes encoded into words by being written down as a law, that idea won’t affect the world. Someone might want to launch nuclear missiles against another country, but until they let that idea out into the world by giving the order, we’re all safe (I’m not thinking of any particular American presidential candidate by the way. Nope).
In a very real sense then, our words shape the world. And we’ve always known this. This is why magical spells and mantras were so important in so many cultures around the world, and why so many religions have had sacred words which could only be uttered by certain individuals on certain occasions. It might seem ludicrous to a modern, enlightened individual that people could believe that simply saying certain words could have powerful positive or negative effects.
But think about how this is true of everyday life. Think of how our leaders use rhetoric to sway public opinion. Would Hitler have risen to power if he lacked his incredible power of rhetoric. Imagine how different modern history might have been if he hadn’t. In more everyday terms, think about how much cheaper something seems if it costs €19.99 instead of €20, or if a sofa is advertised on TV as 4…9 …9 instead of four hundred and ninety-nine euro. And if words couldn’t influence us so much, would we have poetry, or great novels?
Remember that a word is a powerful thing, so be careful about who you give it to.