Why are we so attached to words?

Tripping over words

Illustration by Rosie Apps from ‘Butterflies and Sweaty Palms’

He that would live in peace and at ease,
Must not speak all he knows, nor judge all he sees.
Benjamin Franklin

Recently I’ve been falling out of love with words. Don’t get me wrong – a beautiful phrase still moves me, I still love inspirational quotations, Shakespeare astounds and delights me more and more. I’m aware of the irony of using words to say this!

But it’s true, I don’t trust them in the mouths of many people. Too many words, too much posturing, too much verbal skulduggery.

The trouble is that words don’t stand alone, firmly attached to their dictionary definitions; they gather reverberations around them like moss, and then work on us below consciousness as well as within consciousness. That can be magical in poetry but dangerous when there’s pretence of reason.

Take, as an example, easy and hard. We tell children and adults to work hard or to try harder but the word hard reverberates with its alternative meanings … rigid-impenetrable-resistant; arduous-fatiguing-exhausting; difficult-bewildering-problematic; grim-heartless-obdurate; bitter-harsh-severe; rough-forceful-heavy. The resonance of these other meanings creates tension, resistance and forcing – all counterproductive for learning and accomplishment; no wonder some children give up. We try hard at a sport by forcing and the next day we’re in agony; and then we believe the person who parrots the unproven “Work harder! There’s no gain without pain.”

Meanwhile we mistrust easy with its ‘un-easy’ resonances of undemanding-unchallenging-facile; vulnerable-susceptible-gullible; casual-nonchalant-laidback; safe-cushy-soft; loose-wanton-sluttish. Better to claim, “At least I worked hard, found it tough, got tired, put in effort. So easy gets a bad press. Yet, with ease, we learn and accomplish much more, much faster and much more pleasurably – and we notice and discover more too. Try telling a baby learning to walk and talk to work harder at it and see how much good it does!

These reverberations around words tend towards manipulation. Using today’s migrant, instead of yesterday’s refugee we can dispense with sympathy. Canny politicians use the word terrorist (them) to incite fear and anger, and peace force (us) to paint pictures of righteous courage and derring-do. The word defence covers acts of aggression. Protective acts provide justification for blowing up civilians and children. Solutions to conflicts are bandied about as if living and sharing with other human beings can be solved like a crossword puzzle. We listen to such words in the mouths of public figures and hear the predictable controlled tones that overlie any personal investment. The spin is so simplistic I wonder at our insouciance.

Meanwhile, we act as if words were everything. “Apologise!” we shout. So they apologise: I’m truly sorry (in a ‘pull the other one’ voice). “Oh, that’s alright then,” we say , “They said the word; job done.”

It’s no good – we can’t depend on words without human spirit behind them.

I watch a baby express himself and his whole body is involved. His arms whirl around with joy; excitement produces shaking through the whole body; crying vibrates through his whole being. That’s expression.

Let’s take words off their pedestal. Listen for a moment to what your body (every part of you except for your head) has to say. You may listen to an article of world news and want to say something in anger; but wait, what is your body saying? You discover sadness under your anger; wait again – and under the sadness you discover fear and vulnerability. Let’s speak from there and see what happens – we might just strike a chord in other human beings.

This applies whenever you speak, present or talk to others – when you go beneath the gloss of smooth practised words and communicate from a deeper more vulnerable place, you touch people and connect – and have the power to influence them.

An artist learning to paint is often taught to paint the gaps between objects rather than the objects themselves, and a new way of looking emerges. Let’s begin to do something similar and look between the words that people speak – to observe the pauses, the hesitations and changes in breathing, the hardness or ease in their demeanour. Let’s pause for a moment to lose the certainty of words that define, interpret, categorise and condemn, and find the wisdom of suspending judgement for a while and listening to deeper notes within.

Then let’s talk – for real – to everyone, to anyone. After all, our world needs saving, and the present ‘hard’ way isn’t working.

Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words. Rumi

Summer News

Voice of Influence Workshop – 20-21 October

Don’t be daunted – this is an ‘easy’ workshop, where people have a good time and at the same time achieve more than they thought possible. Find your voice and speak with confidence in public, even without notes. It was really impressive what people achieved last month in the July workshop. The next workshop is on 20-21 October, and I take only small numbers, so reserve your place soon if you’re interested. You can book on-line, or send me an email to reserve your place.

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I hope you are enjoying some sunshine and repose this August,

Go well,




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