Why Words Matter

5 Nov

“It’s just a word.”

“Geez, don’t take it seriously!”

“It’s just an expression, it doesn’t mean anything.”

We’ve all heard this, maybe even said it, during the course of our lives.  How words are just that – words.  They hold no power unless you allow it.

Rationally, I get this.

Emotionally, my reaction is more “Bullshit!”

I’m a writer.  I use words, write words, read words.  I’ve seen words change lives, I’ve seen words hurt.

Words have power.  It’s why libraries and publishers and Kindles exist.  It’s why we have talk shows and NPR and therapy.

Words matter.

Words can be used to uplift, to express joy, pride, success, compassion.

Words can also be used to bring someone down, insult, spew hate.

And there will be people who will passionately defend their right to spew hate.  “Freedom of Speech!” they yell.  “Don’t censor me!”

It’s not about censorship, nor about taking away someone’s freedom.  I’m not lobbying Congress to overturn amendments.

I’m asking, nicely, as someone who has been hurt by words – please, choose wisely.  Think for a moment before letting certain words come out of your mouth.

You can’t unsay something hateful. The person who hears or reads it can’t undo that knowledge.

You put words out there, and they stay out there.  We remember the good things said to us, we try unsuccessfully to forget the ones that hurt.

I can look back on my life and remember times when people used words to hurt me.  Being teased in school for things I couldn’t help – my height, my speech issues, my psoriasis.  “Ew! Is it contagious? That’s gross!” I remember in 7th grade, my suddenly former friends telling me that they no longer liked me, to go sit at the “loser” table.  I remember the high school English teacher who stared at me while announcing to the whole class that “SOME people don’t belong in my honor’s English class”.   I remember as a mom, watching another child mock my daughter, laughing at her while she cried.  “Ha ha! You’re a BABY!”

There are some things, even if you want to forget, just get burned into your brain.  Because at that time, those words hit you harder than the proverbial piano dropping on your head.  There are times when an unkind word was just another kick while we were already struggling, and made us wonder why we kept trying, why we didn’t just give up.  And then there were times when we were struggling and a string of kind words made all the difference.  “You know Phoebe, I think you have it harder than you let on…”  Those words were said to me over twenty years ago.  I still can’t explain how much they helped me.

We’ve all been there. We’ve been on both ends of the spectrum.

So why do we pretend that words don’t make an impact, that they don’t really matter?  To excuse our bad behavior?


I’ve been told I take certain words “too seriously” and that there are “bigger things” to worry about.  Is there anything bigger than promoting kindness and respect towards our fellow human beings?

Is there?

Words make an impact.

Words can make or break a person.

Words matter.



22 Responses to “Why Words Matter”

  1. Cheri November 5, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

    This is really a wonderful post on a topic I write on often. Words ARE important and it saddens me host lost the language of humanity has become.

  2. donofalltrades November 5, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

    I called myself retarded on Twitter last week and somebody called me out on it. I deleted the post and apologized. I am vulgar and crass and what not, but I don’t want to hurt even a single person where it can be avoided. While I think society has become way too thin skinned in a lot of areas, it’s good to get the message out to remind folks that certain words do carry more weight, no matter what excuses we use.

  3. 90maz November 5, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

    Reblogged this on speciallyteaching.

  4. Cheryl @ Stop The Stigma November 5, 2013 at 5:34 pm #

    Reblogged this on Stop the Stigma with Cher Shares and commented:
    Words definitely MATTER! Next week is National Anti-Bullying week…try to convince ME that words do not matter! This blog, Herding Cats is actually the blog that motivated me to start my blog…I moved away from CherShares to talk about Stigma…yep, that would mean labels…that would mean WORDS that hurt, that undermine, that DO MATTER. Read this blog, Herding Cats. She writes from the heart and is an amazing writer! Cheryl-Lynn

  5. saracvt November 5, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

    Boy, do I know this. I’ve always been on the hefty side, ‘kay? Genetically, my family’s females were built for breeding; we all have child-bearing hips. I had chipmunk cheeks at 3. I am 43 and I remember a lunchtime in the fourth grade where a boy called out, “That girl looks like she’s PREGNANT!” And everybody laughed. It is burned into my brain–the humiliation, the shame, the total helplessness.

    On the slightly more uplifting side, my sister was born with severe cerebral palsy (stay with me, here) and was taken to Children’s Hospital in Seattle, widely considered the best in our area, for possible surgery when she was three. At that time, she could only “speak” by sign language but she could understand others speaking. The evaluating doctor said IN FRONT OF HER, “Oh, there’s no point. It’s clear she’ll never walk.” We left at that point with an extremely upset Alice. We all gradually forgot this incident–or so we thought. Years later–I believe she was 14 or so– she did learn to walk with a walker. Her first words after doing so were, “He wrong! I walk!!”

    • phoebz4 November 5, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

      wow, what an awful doctor – and bravo for Alice!

    • Joy M Newcom November 5, 2013 at 7:28 pm #

      Rock on, Alice! Wonderful story.

  6. Joy M Newcom November 5, 2013 at 7:26 pm #

    You are right. Word.

  7. Mary C. November 5, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

    Word DO matter! Keep writing!

  8. Amanda November 5, 2013 at 8:32 pm #

    “Primer” by Carl Sandburg

    Look out how you use proud words.
    When you let proud words go, it is not easy to call them back.
    They wear long boots, hard boots; they walk off proud; they can’t hear you calling–
    Look out how you use proud words.

    I memorized this poem when I was a youngster. I liked the comparison of hard words to hard boots because I could envision people being trampled under hard boots – which is what hard, proud words do, they trample people’s feelings. They let people divide into their worlds into “us” and “them.” Once those divisions are made, such labels make it terribly easy not to care.

  9. Susan Holmes November 5, 2013 at 9:09 pm #

    Another great column, and you are so right. Words are important. Look at any political movement. What is in the womb is either a fetus or a baby, depending on which side of the fence you are on. You are either “terminating a pregnancy” or “killing a baby.” Words matter in political movements. How many times have we read about the “far right” movement in the newspapers. Does anyone talk about the “far left” in newsprint? Go to any political arena and you will find there is a word list of preferred words and words that are not used. Matthew 15:18, “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.” What comes out of our mouths is what is in our hearts. I think some people should tape record themselves and then listen to what they say to others. We all want to think we are more kind than we are, that we are more considerate than we are…but our words, gentle or vulgar or hateful… show us for what we really are.

  10. franhunne4u November 6, 2013 at 1:02 am #

    Of course words can hurt – but the problem is, how many words do you want to forbid? Just because someone called your daughter a BABY to hurt her, does it mean we are not allowed to call a baby a baby anymore? Baby is as well used as a word of endearment. Just think of “Dirty Dancing”.
    Words in themselves are innocent. Just how we use them, with which intent, turns them into weapons! A bitch is a female dog. Nothing wrong using that word if you want to describe a female dog. But if you use it for a female person, it turns into an insult. How often have I been called a fat cow. But COW is just a word for a certain animal. It is the wrong usage, that insults, not the word.
    Your daughter is behind in her development. Still I would never say your daughter is a retard. I would simply not use the noun here, as the noun is used with insult and why should I insult your daughter.
    Yes, we should all think about how we use words, as well as we should think about how we use our cars, our knives or our bodies. But we should not ban words. We should instead treat others not any different from the way we would like to be treated ourselves – with respect. And then you do not use a word/ a comparison to humilate somebody else, cos you would not like to be treated that way.

    • phoebz4 November 6, 2013 at 1:15 am #

      When the other child called my daughter a “baby”, it was when they were 7 and 8 years of age respectively. Maura was not actually a baby, but older and taller than this other girl who had been in class with Maura for two years, knew Maura, and had no problem asking to share in the fun of Maura’s iPad between dance classes.

      alling Maura and another special ed student “babies” was the highest insult their classmates could come up with that year, and had no problem taunting them with it. While they didn’t understand fully, their siblings did. Their siblings knew the intent and were upset by it. The school in return, did absolutely nothing about this teasing and mocking in class. I happened to witness it, as did my older daughter.

      I am not out for banning words. I’m not asking Congress to repeal the 1st Amendment. I just ask that people think about what they say, and how it could hurt someone. Or how far a kind word can go. That is my message here.

      • franhunne4u November 6, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

        And you are right on demanding people to think about their words! Babbling should not be a thoughtless process.

      • phoebz4 November 6, 2013 at 12:51 pm #

        By the way, if you poll my friends, you will find that I’ve never lambasted them for using the word “retarded” around me. I’m actually quite the understanding soul.

        Steal my chocolate though and you will be dead to me! Some things are unforgiveable.

      • franhunne4u November 6, 2013 at 12:55 pm #

        I would never steal anyones chocolates (no, too much respect for fellow chocoholics)- or call someone retarded, but I might call some people idiots, when they behave like those – though I prefer a less general swear word.

    • Christine November 6, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

      I think that Pheobe was pretty clear that she doesn’t want to forbid any words but wants people to be mindful of how hurtful or helpful their words can be – to take their words seriously because words have power and consequences. People should not hide behind “it was only a word”.

      • franhunne4u November 6, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

        and I was pretty clearly on both topics agreeing with her: That words can hurt (that was how my comment started, fyi)- and that people should think about their actions (and speaking is an action) .. where is your point?

  11. lifeofawillow November 6, 2013 at 1:14 am #

    so important. well said.

  12. Julie Borkowski November 6, 2013 at 3:01 am #

    Even Sephora realizes words matter. If you try to leave a review on their web site concerning the lipstick “celebutard” and your review contains the word “retard” it won’t be allowed to post. Because it contains profanity. But you can use the word ‘tard’ or celebutard. Ironic, isn’t it?

  13. Christine November 6, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

    Brava! Amen!

  14. Katie November 6, 2013 at 10:59 pm #

    I just had to have a meeting with my boss and a coworker today about this topic. My coworker has a tendency to use sarcasm and attitude to hurt people but sarcastic words hurt just as much as direct insults. Ultimately, I feel she didn’t learn much from our meeting but I hope she at least stops mocking other coworkers on a regular basis. Our workplace instituted a zero tolerance coworker bullying policy and it has had a slow start but people are finally getting the message.

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