Wendell Berry, in Standing By Words, says “…fidelity to the word, as evidenced by clarity of meaning and intent, would go far to reconnect language to life.” (His book cover uses the Chinese symbol for ‘fidelity’ or ‘faith': a man standing by his word.) Does it ever occur to you that our work with words is a form of faith-fullness? I think that unless we understand it this way, we’ll give up more easily in the face of all the hurdles and disappointments that seem an inevitable part of the word business.
I work with non-profit groups to articulate their mission, operations policies, plans, etc…, and find it is common for people/organizations to hold very vaguely expressed conceptions of these vital pieces of ‘self-knowledge’. It sometimes is a challenge to get them to do the work of thinking clearly enough to say clearly what they’re all about. I teach a Rhetoric class, and the kids often ‘know’ exactly how they want to argue, but have a very long way to go before I get a coherent argument extracted in words from among their conceptions. I’m sure the nightly examination of conscience is good advice partly because it helps us move from having a vague conception of ‘sin and self’ to a concrete awareness of specific flaws that need to be addressed. We can hold in our minds the image of a whole thought, but without words it is an ‘idea of an idea’. At our worst, we can have a warm, fuzzy idea of doing some good thing, and then utter words that have the exact opposite effect. Words that aren’t ‘faithful’ are lies. Danger!!
We word workers can help reconnect words to life. We can speak clearly about how we feel in ways that honor our own being, without violating anyone else. We can gently ask for more clarification when someone else’s words are at variance with their own intentions, or with their other words. We can refuse to write words for a person, or a cause, just to develop a positive image in the minds of others. We can refuse to manipulate anyone with words. We can remind people of the etymology of words – their ‘hermeneutic of continuity’. We can try to stop saying what we don’t really mean. We can stop and respond to the words of others so as to encourage them to keep writing. We can keep promises – make our yes our yes, and our no our no.
We can be careful not to use words in ways that correspond to a twisting of the truth. For instance, I always raise a quick, non-combative objection to the use of the term ‘human resources’ – just a mention that humans are not one of the resources of production. Another example: I speak of ‘using birth control pills’ as ‘chemically neutering women’ (and I’ve seen it really change the way they think about it!). New Zealand pro-lifers got a change in the booklet given to moms with a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome – changing the idea of the ‘risk’ of having Down Syndrome to the ‘chance’ of having it. This was a big fight for one small word, but it seems those advocates for the unborn are really faithful to the word!
Anyway, I just want to say, “GO WORD PEOPLE!!!” and thank everyone who is trying to stop the awful leakage of word-power from the people and the culture around us.