January 5, 2013

Our words are full of discovery


---- — I love words. 

I love discovering new words (although, I can never pronounce them) that open my mind to foreign concepts or that finally crystallize some elusive emotion. I love old, not-often-used words that bubble to the surface like fleeting, but cherished memories. I love a well-chosen word or phrase that can make something simple sound so special: toasted cheese sandwiches, laundry soap or washing the floors.

The power of words amazes me; the fearsome power to unlock or damage a timid heart, the gathering power of a whispered prayer. I am fascinated by the bias we give certain words and the value that we assign to others — sometimes deservedly so, sometimes not.

Several years ago, a friend of mine was talking to her 4-year-old son. They were discussing his grandmother, and the little boy nonchalantly commented that the grandmother was “fat.” My friend immediately told her boy not to call his grandmother “fat.” The little boy looked completely confused and said, “But she is fat.” Later, my friend told me she realized her son was not using “fat” as a put down; he was describing his grandmother in the same way he would say that her hair was brown or she was short. This little boy adored his grandmother, and the only one judging the term “fat” was my friend. How often do we do that as adults? How many times do we add implication or weight to a word that doesn’t need to be there?

A former student recently told me a story about a grandmother who had temporarily taken custody of her grandchild. The child’s biological mother would become hurt and defensive when the child called the grandmother “mommy.” My student wondered at this hurt as the mother was providing no care whatsoever for the child. The child knew who to turn to for food and comfort; controlling what the child called her caregiver wouldn’t change the reality of who responded in the night. Our oldest son calls me “mu-mu” when he is feeling playful and loving. It may not be “mommy,” but my heart melts whenever I hear it.

So many of the words we use skew reality. For instance, the words “rich” or “poor” can really only have meaning when measured against another’s circumstance. The word “just” can be used to minimize hurt, “I just pushed her,” or to minimize achievement, “He just got his GED” or “I just go to a community college.”

What I find interesting is how we use sexual words and words for our private parts to dominate and degrade. A lot of media would suggest that sex is something worth “getting” and that those private parts are a hot commodity. Why, then, do we use sexuality as the ultimate put down, or our anatomy as terms for disgust and disrespect? Is it because we have so completely dishonored God’s original plan for holy union that we must render it shameful?

There is one word that my friend tells me is unwavering. Some may question whether this word is legend; many will condemn how humans have misused this word to manipulate or hurt. But the nature of this word is universal. In any conversation, watch how the word “Jesus” impacts the discussion. I don’t mean religion; I mean his name. There is a calm settling, a mutual understanding of who he is and what he would do. My friend says that you never hear anyone say, “That Jesus guy was a jerk” or even “imperfect.” Whether we choose to personally accept it or not, there is a homecoming in his name, in the sense of him as the ultimate, truthful constant — who knows us, forgives us, who will lay down his life for us. 

If Jesus is the one word that we can agree upon, then what must that signify? I know what I think. I know what I believe it heralds: “In the beginning there was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God,” according to John 1:1 in the Bible.

Mary White is from the Malone area. She and her husband have five children, eight cats, two dogs and three guinea pigs. She has had the privilege of working with children and families (her own and other people’s) for more than 20 years. For more of her columns, visit