"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." I doubt there's a single person among us who hasn't heard that old rhyme at some point. Usually we hear it as children when we've just encountered a bully's taunts or a parent or teacher is trying to convince us to avoid fighting in favor of a higher road.
While those goals are all well and good, the problem is that the saying just isn't true. I don't know who first came up with this old adage. Our friend Wikipedia, citing Gary Martin's website phrases.org.uk, points to its earliest known usage in the March 1862 edition of The Christian Recorder, the official periodical of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In that rendition, "break" is used instead of "harm", which seems to convey a slightly different meaning. After all, there are lots of thing in life that harm us but that don't break us. If this was the original saying, I think I could live with it.
My problem has always been with the wording we typically use, and I think it reflects a profoundly misguided and false mentality about the power of words and language itself. I could tell you story after story in which someone else's words deeply hurt me. There are things said in my childhood that I still sometimes remember and feel the effects of to this day. Most of us were taught as children to "watch our mouths" and, in most cases, we faced repercussions if we swore or cursed or used other inappropriate language. That doesn't always seem as common today. In my line of work, I can't tell you how many times I've had high school students in my theology classes sincerely debate me over the question of "bad words." They really don't seem to get what the big deal is. I hear it a lot: "They're just words, Mr. Creavey!"
Just words? How could we say that? Words are immeasurably powerful things and they can effect what they signify (the fancy phrase for this is "performative utterance"). I'll give you some examples. "I love you." How about that one? How do you feel when someone says that to you sincerely? How do you feel when someone says it to you insincerely, when you know somehow that they don't really mean it? Why do girlfriends want their boyfriends to say "I love you" over the phone when they're with their friends? On the other side of the coin, think about phrases like "You're fired" or "You're under arrest." If a friend says it to you it may be a joke. If your boss or a police officer says it, it literally changes your entire life immediately. Words mean things, folks; they point to some reality beyond their own limits and dimensions. That's why we can say "in other words" with such frequency - there is something real that I am attempting to communicate through my words. Cursing or swearing communicates anger, aggression, disrespect, selfishness, and other negative and harmful things. That, in a nutshell, is what I try to help my students understand.
The problem our society seems to have is that it thinks words are nothing more than labels that we arbitrarily attach to whatever we want, whenever we want. That simply isn't true. It's an attitude that is inseparably linked with our tendency to place ourselves at the center of the universe. The consequences of this impoverished mentality are everywhere. If words don't actually mean something, if they don't by nature point to a reality beyond themselves, then they don't mean anything. If they don't mean anything, I can make them mean whatever I want. "Love" can mean just affection or a tingly feeling or a vague emotional urge that makes no demands of me. The search for "Truth" can be a cool idea, a hobby that I jump in and out of like Lego building. But it surely can't be a lifelong and toilsome search for the universal reality to which I and everyone else are subject. I won't get into other specifics here, but suffice it to say that there are some very high profile societal crusades going on right now that are largely founded upon this basic, ground-level confusion.
To close, I would like to leave you with my favorite passage from Scripture. God, the creator and sustainer of all existence itself, has revealed to us all the true nature and power of words because it was precisely through "The Word" that he created the universe. Check this out:
"In In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it... The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father... For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known."