Commentary: How much is a word worth?
A well-used adage states that a picture is worth a thousand words. But deep in my heart, I’m not convinced. Graphic novels are marvels of artistry but they usually don’t hold my attention, because often they don’t have enough words in them for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love visual communication, especially films seen at the cinema and artworks viewed in a museum. But for me, images don’t outstrip words in impact or worth.
Words have been my lifelong friends. Reading has allowed me to explore other realities through fiction, feel others’ emotions through poetry, and to learn from nonfiction. When I am awake, I constantly scan my environment for words. As a child, I tormented my parents by reading every single sign out loud during car rides. These days I annoy those around me by enthusing over etymology. Learning German has not improved this malady since nearly every day contains an “aha” moment in which I see linguistic connections.
But I’ve thought enough about words to know that they are not an unmitigated good. They can be an efficient way to communicate clearly, but that doesn’t mean that they always are. If you have attended meetings, you probably have experienced—or maybe even engaged in—blathering. Human emotion finds an outlet through grandstanding, to vent feelings without advancing a common goal. I’ve often thought of the famous quote in Hamlet when Gertrude tells the gasbag Polonius to get to the point: “More matter, with less art.”
More importantly, words are never simple. I am married to a Brit and the joke is true—we are from two countries divided by a common language. Misunderstandings abound. Even those who supposedly speak the same language do not have the exact same set of meanings attached to a given word. Our lived experiences—upbringing, time period, economic reality, gender—all unite to change the emotional impact and full meaning of a given word. So today, when two different Americans hear the word “patriotic,” for instance, their minds can be flooded with starkly different images and associations.
Words are not only ripe for unintentional misunderstanding; they are also used as very efficient weapons. Sometimes a CEO, politician, or religious leader purposefully obfuscates, hiding negative intent behind a stirring turn of phrase. More openly, words are thrown about during an argument or used in online forums with the sole purpose of winning a battle or inflicting harm. There’s a reason why I no longer enjoy keeping up with social media; the amount of negativity on display is disheartening.
I continue to believe that words are not only powerful but beautiful. However, that belief must be tempered. January is a good time to challenge myself and others to be more careful with words. I want to pause before speaking or typing to consider whether I’m adding to a discussion. To take a minute to consider how those in my audience might hear my message differently than I’d intended. I’d also like to be less surprised and more open to discussion when I receive an unexpected response. That sound is my husband shouting for joy in the distance. In other words, I would like to make fewer assumptions about the words I use. This will be difficult for me. I take snapshots of typos to share with other word nerds and diagram sentences for fun, but that does not make me the arbiter of all language. My hope for 2022 is that we can all step back and consider the words we use and the messages we hope to send. May clear and respectful communication become a core value for all of us, and may we learn to put that value into practice.
Krista Bowers Sharpe is an Associate Professor and Coordinator of Reference Services at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.