The power of words

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By Greg Cusack

Words. As I was learning new words as a child I recall the wonderful discovery of how some “tasted:” butter, yes, but also such marvelous ones like susurrant, which sounds like what it means: a soft, murmuring sound. Words could be used to sooth!

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They could also be used for fun! I delighted in playing at stringing words together, sometimes in nonsense form, just to experiment with alliteration or to catch the musical sound that certain vowels and consonants could yield.

Then there was the mystery of how words’ meanings could change depending upon how they were pronounced or by the volume with which they were uttered. I can still hear — and feel — my mother’s call out the back door “Greg!” changed to “Gregory!” — which signaled her impatience at my non-response — and then, sometimes, the feared “GREGORY D!” This last call meant that I had been tried, judged, and found guilty!

As an altar boy at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, I learned something of the wonder and awe of words, too, through the recitation of my Latin responses to the priest’s words at the introductory prayers at the foot of the altar. As a member of the boys’ and then men’s choir there, I also drank deeply in the beauty of the words we sang at high Mass and on the great liturgical feasts. Whenever I hear one of Palestrina’s gorgeous compositions today, I am drawn back into that wonderful world of words put to melodies that seemed to have been written by angels.

At Assumption High School in Davenport, I learned how to marshal words to express myself better, to advance an argument or to help win a debate. I also gained a new appreciation for how very slippery words could be, too! I came to appreciate why the ancient Greeks had such mixed feelings about the Sophists — who taught students to use words to convince others of their position without regard necessarily for the rightness or ethics of the argument. (This is, I suppose, why some people have such mixed feelings about lawyers and courtroom trials today: for some, winning the argument becomes synonymous with or even more important than, the truth.)

The ‘60s taught me the harsh reality of how words could be used to slash, burn, disfigure, distort and destroy. The lies told about the Vietnam War, the racist comments made about Black people, the distortions about young people who were against the war, and on and on.

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In the 1940s as I was growing up I remember hearing the singsong “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” In the 1960s, I learned the truth of how words could be shaped into cutting shards of verbal grenades that could — and did — wreak terrible harm.

In his brief letter, St. James notes, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be” (James 3:9-10).

Jesus brought us words of life and healing, while we who say we are his followers frequently use words of distinctly darker and harsher hue.

Recently, the editor of The Catholic Messenger wrote a stirring editorial urging us to rekindle our concerns about violence, war and nuclear weapons. I believe that an equivalent step is also necessary: removing from our midst words of division and hate that create conditions that breed violence and seemingly irreconcilable divisions.

Clearly, the poisonous words today appear too often in letters to the editor, posts or tweets or shouted comments at gatherings of “we the people,” as well as the diatribes of mean-spirited politicians and social media outlets.

For a while, some decades back, young people were fond of posting WWJD — What would Jesus do? In these divisive times I believe it would be useful if we would ponder WWJS — What would Jesus say? Can you imagine him using words that would demean, dismiss, make fun of, or scar? Why would we who say we are his followers seek to do otherwise?

(Greg Cusack taught college, served on the Davenport City Council from 1969-73, and the Iowa House of Representatives from 1971-81. He then served as executive director of National Catholic Rural Life Conference from 1981 until late 1986. His public service continued in other areas until he retired as Chief Benefits Officer of the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System in 2004.)


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