What a Word Can Mean

October 1st, 2008
by George S. Crimmin

[private] v6-10-Speaking OutAfter writing several editorials in a row which were highly critical of national and local government, I thought I would loosen up and do a light-hearted column for a change.

Words have always fascinated me. I believe how you package your words can be a powerful tool of influence. Some words in the English language are considered taboo and offensive as measured by contemporary community standards. Such words have never appeared in this column and never will. Nowadays, people rarely say what they mean, or mean what they say!

I lived for over three decades in the United States and was always intrigued by the concept of Labor Day. But, let’s go back to Labor Day. On Labor Day most Americans celebrate by avoiding labor! How do you like that! And not just on the first Monday in September, but throughout the three-day, even four-day weekend holiday set aside for this purpose.

When first proclaimed a national holiday by the U.S. Congress in the year 1894, Labor Day was not just a day when most Americans arranged to be absent from work, but an affirmation of America’s upholding of the principle of equal rights for all. It symbolized an appreciation of the nobility of labor, and not just a pretext to stay home from the workplace, as is the case today.

There are a couple of words whose meanings are somewhat baffling to me. While firefighters for instance fight fires, and trash collectors collect the trash, do freedom fighters fight freedom? Why do you drive on the parkway? And park on the driveway? Can someone educate me on this?

It is worth the effort to pay close attention to words: They choice can be very significant. I have noticed for instance, that the airline industry never loses your luggage; it’s only been misplaced. However, sometimes it is never recovered. Misplaced? Are they kidding? And let’s consider the department stores: They no longer require that you sign a contract, you sign an agreement. They also seldom mention the word cost, they commonly refer to your purchase as an investment. And their product is not necessarily cheaper, but more economical. Why? It helps to soften the blow.

People react differently depending on the wording of a statement. You may have noticed that instead of saying that someone is telling an outright lie, I frequently describe that person as being “economical with the truth.” It means the same thing, but it doesn’t sound as harsh. If I said liar, the response would probably be significantly different. Many corporations, when marketing an expensive product, will leave out the word expensive and introduce it as being top of the line, which has a different impact on the public. Even the health care profession has bought into the word game. Deaf and blind people are usually referred to as hearing and visually impaired. And your loved ones no longer die, but merely pass-away or expire. I guess it sounds kinder and gentler. Also, schools no longer label students as mentally retarded, but mentally challenged.

Recently I watched a politician opposed to the war in Iraq who wanted the troops withdrawn. However, he never used the word withdraw; instead he used the word redeployed. Speaking of politicians, they do not tell lies, they only mislead. J. Allen Peterson writes about a flight he took on a 747 jet out of Brazil. He was awakened from sleep by a voice announcing, “We have a serious emergency.” Three engines had quit, and the fourth was expected to go any second. At first the situation seemed unreal to Mr. Peterson, but when the stewart barked “prepare for impact,” he found himself-and everyone around him-praying. As he buried his head in his lap and pulled up his knees, he said, “Oh God, Thank you. Thank you for the incredible privilege of knowing you. Life has been wonderful.” As the plane approached the ground, his last cry was, “Oh God, my wife! My children!” Peterson survived, and as he wandered about the airport in a daze, aching all over, he discovered he couldn’t speak, but his mind was racing. What were his last words? What was the bottom line? As he remembered, he had his answer. Reunited with his wife and children, all he could say was, “I appreciate you, I appreciate you.” Have you told that person who matters most to you how you feel lately? I assure you, words are important and they really do matter!

As a child growing up on Roatan, we had a little saying that went, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Well, I grew up to discover that words can hurt and cause enormous pain, but words can also soothe and help to ease the pain. My grandmother used to say, “If you cannot say something nice, its best not to say anything at all.”

At times words can be comforting and reassuring. Judith Simon Prager, co-author of the book “The Worst Is Over” writes: “When someone is in physical or emotional pain, you can help by using verbal first aid. There are words that you can say in those situations that can mean the difference between life and death.” Words can also be inspirational. I recall listening to the speeches given to the English people during the darkest days of the Second World War, by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. His words helped to inspire and encourage a nation to ultimate victory over evil.

We are frequently judged by our peers in regard to the reliability of our word.

Yes, friend, words matter, they matter a great deal! Someone once said, “Your words are windows to your heart,” a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse. [/private]

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