The Power of the Word | Third Space

The Power of the Word

How Language Transforms and Transcends
Mon 6 Jun 2022



The proverb “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” has long been recognised as a problematic one. Some iterations replace “will never” with “can also”, others replace “never” with “always”. It doesn’t take a psychologist to know that words can hold terrible power, and cause lasting harm.

Words can also heal, encourage and empower. Yes, they can tear us apart, but they can also draw us together.

I was reminded of this recently when struggling to get into a novel. One reason was that the narrator, while seemingly omniscient, observed characters from a distance rather than relaying their thoughts. But another—one I was slower to identify—was that the author, when first introducing the characters, did not give them names.

There’s something transformative about naming a person. It confers personhood, significance and worth, it distinguishes one from others. Many have speculated that one of the reasons the Nazis were able to commit such atrocities against the Jews was the fact they called them by number instead of by name. In novels, to name a character is to direct the reader’s attention towards them; it’s usually safe to assume those who are named will play a part of some significance, unlike those who aren’t.

In daily life, the giving or exchanging of names holds similar significance. It signals the possibility of something beyond a fleeting interaction: the beginning of a longer association, perhaps even a lasting relationship.

Words and The Word

In the Christian tradition, words and language hold profound importance. The world was spoken into being. Man’s first task is to name the animals. And while the first humans are initially referred to generically as “man” and “woman”, they’re quickly given names.

The fact God is referred to by many names is also significant. Sometimes a particular name is used to point to a particular “person” in the godhead (“Father”, “Son”, “Holy Spirit”), at other times a name is used to highlight one of God’s particular roles or characteristics. Names used for “the Son” range from the predictable (“Saviour”, “King”) to the philosophical (“Alpha and Omega”, “I am”) to the unusual (“Bread of Life”, “Lamb”).

At the start of John’s gospel, the Son is referred to as “The Word”. Readers who don’t immediately know who this is soon will: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

A Saving Word

Another reason words are of profound importance in the Christian tradition is that they bring salvation—they lead people to the Word.

As the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Rome, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ”.

“The message” is as strange as it is wonderful: that God does not expect people to somehow find their way to him; that he who spoke the world into being, has come to them.

Christians believe “the Word” became one of us, dwelt with us, spoke to us, died for us, and rose again. His words were then passed down; they have been passed down ever since.

In the Old Testament, long before the “good news” was revealed, a deeply troubled character called Job longs for someone to mediate between him and God: “someone to bring us together, someone to remove God’s rod from me”. In the New Testament, that someone shows up. His name is Jesus.

Words reflect reality and they shape reality. Perhaps, long ago, they were used to create it.

Some will view this idea as fiction, others believe it is stranger than fiction. But few will dispute the power of words to harm and to heal, to empower and disempower, to prevent change, and provoke it. The challenge is to use them well; to think before we speak and, most difficult of all, to listen to them too.

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