“Words have a magical power. They can bring either the greatest happiness or deepest despair; they can transfer knowledge from teacher to student; words enable the orator to sway his audience and dictate its decisions. Words are capable of arousing the strongest emotions and prompting all men’s actions.”
– Sigmund Freud
Recently, a friend told a story about a woman he met who was about to undergo a risky brain surgery. Doctors prepared her for the worst, because in all likelihood, the invasive procedure would destroy her ability to speak. When asked how she was doing, she responded, “You know, since I can count the number of sentences I have left to say, I’ve become really picky with my words.”
We live in a world flooded with information and words. On average, men speak 10,000 words a day, and women double that number. Digital communication has exponentially increased the ease, avenues and audience for our words. In some ways, that freedom should be celebrated – especially given that there are many around the world who don’t have the ability or right to speak openly about what they think, feel and believe. The ability to express ourselves can enrich our lives deeply. However, when our language is unrestrained and unmindful, we render our words meaningless at best – damaging at worst.
It happens all the time when marketers exploit a trend. A word popularizes, and almost overnight, it’s overused, abused and stripped of all meaning. We now have “artisan” fast food sandwiches, “handcrafted” cups of gas station coffee and if you’re a blogger having a yard sale you’re participating in “vintage curation.” Something described as “unique” often just means it is “interesting” or “atypical,” rather than it’s true definition of one-of-a-kind.
Quality, precision, and an appreciation for the true meaning of words have taken a backseat to a false virtue: speed. Getting information out quickly has become more valuable than accuracy or pertinence. Popular logic is that you can always correct yourself later, so just say something – anything – but say it first and say it fast.
Mark Twain famously said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Being thoughtful and restrained with what we say takes more time. But it’s worth the effort to be selective, because when you sacrifice speed and frequency, your words gain significance, sincerity and authenticity.
Language is not only a gift, but also a responsibility. And these days, it’s radical to be careful and wise with our words.
**This essay was originally contributed to Bearings, a Southern Lifestyle Guide for Men.