Why Words Matter, Part 1




Words matter because, for better or worse, language is a mirror of the soul.



In Autumn of 1941, with the world at war, author Upton Sinclair wrote the following dedication to his novel, Dragon’s Teeth—a book that eventually won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943:

In tragic times like these, an elderly author has nothing to give but words. This collection of words is dedicated to the men and woman in many parts of the world who are giving their lives in the cause of freedom and human decency.

Sinclair’s crystalline sentiment strikes like a gong in my soul, vibrates in the very core of my being.

For most of my life I have felt that I have little to offer to the world except my words, and that offering has usually felt woefully inadequate, insufficient, as if words could never, never be enough.

I have a lot of friends who are social activists. Some are angry, strident people. Some are downright mean-spirited. Some, like peace activist David Lamott, are gentle, sensitive poets. Some, like my wife Pam, add to the Yes in the world with a quiet passion. Some are preachers. Some are organizers. Some work for systemic change, while others prefer the hands-on individual type of help: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, welcoming the outcasts, and caring for the Least of These.

And what about me?
I write.

In her song, “The Work of Our Hands,” singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer declares,
“I make something barely there; music is little more than air. . .”
It’s an apt description for one who weaves syllables and guitar strings into a life’s work.

Unlike Newcomer, I don’t even have notes. Only letters, twenty-six of them, and a few assorted punctuation marks, to arrange and re-arrange into something substantial and meaningful and, God willing, life changing. At least for one life, even if it is only my own.

So I wonder–always, always I wonder:  Do words matter? Can they make a difference? Can they, in some invisible, inscrutable way, help to create a better, kinder, more welcoming world?

Well, yes and no.

Words do have power. Mightier than the sword, some have said. My own metaphor would come closer to fire—painstakingly kindled or carelessly dropped into dry tinder, a source of warmth and comfort or death and destruction, depending upon who wields the match.

Words matter, for words both reflect and inform the state of the human heart.
Words matter, for language is a mirror of the soul.
Words matter, because words generate light or darkness, blessing or curse.

If you see much of social media these days, you’ll quickly be convinced that there’s more cursing than blessing going on in the world. More negative energy than positive being pumped into the universe. More conflict than connection. More division than diversity.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Words can make a difference. Words can change the world, every bit as much as action.
Thoughtful words.
Compassionate words.
Words of peace and understanding and empathy.
Words of affirmation and acceptance.

Words like “Love.”
Like “Care.”
Like “Come.”




The sweetest word
upon the tongue

Come back to where
you once belonged,
back to those who
knew you,
loved you,
believed the best of you.

Row, if your ship has sailed,
Swim, if all your bridges have been burned,
Fly, if the chasm seems too wide or deep.
But come.

© Penelope J. Stokes



Power, Patriarchy, and the Language of Dominance (Why Words Matter, Part 2)
God-Language and Imaging the Divine (Why Words Matter, Part 3)

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8 Responses to Why Words Matter, Part 1

  1. Susan says:

    Powerful words, Penny. Thank you, and I anticipate parts two and three.

  2. Karen Nice-Webb says:

    Thank you for your words.

  3. dgrimes3@satx.rr.com says:

    Dear Penny, Thanks for these words. I have always believed that words are very powerful, beyond any other human strength. Love, DiAnn

  4. DiAnn Grimes says:

    Thank you, my sweet friend for these words. And, yes, words are so powerful, that is why so many authors struggle with them as they write their stories, or memoirs–especially the memoirs. Love you lots.

  5. Maren says:

    Words — breath and yet before the foundation. Thank you as always for your words and for the way you choose them in a time when random flinging of words is common, even admired. Ah, but wasn’t this post the one that turns me green — the one I wish I’d written! My gratitude is deep and I’m looking forward to the next two (or twenty) installments.

  6. Thank you, Maren. I do so appreciate your kind words. It’s a post that has been brewing for some time.

  7. Patsy Clary says:

    Your words always have a profound affect on me and I look forward to parts 2 and 3.

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