The power of words

O! many a shaft, at random sent,

Finds mark the archer never meant!And many a word, at random spoken,

May soothe or wound a heart that's


Sir Walter Scott

A young woman tells a story of when she first learned that she was valued. She was in the garden with her mother, kneeling on the soft grass with the sun stinging her back. Dirt caked her mother's hands, so she asked her young daughter to hold a glass of water to her mouth so she could drink from it.

"You're so helpful. I'm lucky to have you," said the mother, and from then on the young girl saw herself that way: helpful. It became something of a defining word in her life. She was helpful in school, helpful in the neighborhood, helpful in Church. She had other reasons to be that way, of course, but a simple word spoken at the right time had a major influence.

We've all had moments like that. Years may pass, but we can still remember the words that someone said to us, and how we felt as we heard them. Sadly, our memories are full of words of both encouragement and disappointment, of happiness and sadness.

Words have power. Language has power. Of all the skills we acquire in life, the use of words and language is among the most critical. The ability to communicate with each other, sharing thoughts both simple and profound, is one of our most astonishing achievements.

Our language defines who we are. It carries our culture from one generation to the next, and links us with the thoughts of others long dead. It is the basis on which we build our relationships and even our society. We cannot separate ourselves from it any more than a tree can divorce itself from its roots. The poet Emerson wrote, "Use what language you will, you can never say anything but what you are." By that he meant that we bring to our words the experience of our life.

Given all that, it is important that we use our words carefully and respect the power that they have. The truth is, our words often have an emotional impact and we tend to underestimate their value to us and to others. A kind word at the appropriate time will do more good than we can imagine, and a harsh word does damage beyond its hearing. People have been brought into the Church and into fellowship with the Saints by the influence of a word, and they have become discouraged and bitter by the same process.

Which is why the gospel encourages us to use words that uplift others. The apostle Paul urged Timothy to "hold fast the form of sound words, which thou has heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus." Eighteen hundred years later, as Brigham Young was preparing the Church for its departure to far-off Utah, the Lord's instructions to the Saints were to "let your words tend to edifying one another." (D&C 136:24.) The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob described "the pleasing word of God, yea, the word which healeth the wounded soul." (Jacob 2:8.)

Indeed, the scriptures are full of encouragement to speak well. "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver," was a saying of the Israelites (Prov. 25:11) and the words, first spoken thousands of years ago, make us smile with recognition of their inherent truth - in itself a testimony to the power of words to transcend time.

Another aspect of language and words needs mentioning. Our prophets have encouraged us to avoid the cheapening effect of vulgarities and crude language.

Joseph Fielding Smith said, "Language, like thought, makes its impression and is recalled by the memory in a way that may be unpleasant if not harmful to those who have been compelled to listen to unseemly words. Thoughts that in themselves are not proper may be exalted or debased by the language used to express them." (Juvenile Instructor, May 1, 1906.)

Today the challenge of avoiding crude, debasing and degrading language is made even more difficult by both the worldwide reach of our popular media and by the many forms it takes. Very few of us can live in the world and not be exposed to bad language. That's why it is even more imperative for us to understand the critical role that language plays in our life. We don't have to use the words we read and hear if we know better, more uplifting ones.

The world is full of thoughtless and divisive words spoken in haste, anger or discouragement. The gospel - which itself originally meant "good story" - is full of uplifting, encouraging words. Words like love, faith, charity, hope, peace. We cannot use them too often.

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