Several days ago, a conservative radio personality despoiled the air waves with foul descriptions of a law school student who had made a reasoned and civil argument for her position on a health-care issue. He so vilified her that his words were repugnant to anyone who recognizes the boundaries of dignified discourse.
Noah Webster, a stickler for the proper definition of words, was responsible for standardizing American English. One day, his wife opened the kitchen door and discovered Noah kissing the maid.
Mrs. Webster exclaimed, "Why Noah, I am surprised!"
He said, "No, my dear. We are surprised. You are amazed. A surprise refers to the unexpected. Amazement refers to being astounded at what you see."
Ever since the Tower of Babel, communicating has often been an exercise in frustration. Dialogue is usually better described as two consecutive monologues, featuring people "me-deep" in conversation.
The humorist Sam Levenson commented: "Many wise words are spoken in jest, but they don't compare to the number of stupid words spoken in earnest."
Who of us has not said something insensitive in the intensity of the moment that we wish we could retract?
Again, Sam Levenson: "It's really so simple to be wise. Just think of something stupid to say and then don't say it."
We should learn that the art of speaking is not only to say the right thing at the right time, but to also leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.
Mark Twain observed about the dictionary: "I have studied it often, but never could discover the plot."
Words, though, do have design.
First, words have consequences, they make things happen.
With words of blessing, the Sabbath is inaugurated. The bride and groom recite vows as they step onto a common path in life. With the oath of office a president's term begins.
One person speaking words of repentance and another speaking words of forgiveness initiates a process of reconciliation. We sharpen the words we intend to use against others. When we do not speak to others, we speak volumes.
Yes, words have consequences.
Second, words possess enormous power for good or for ill.
While words can be evanescent, resonating for a moment and then gone forever, they can also be enduring and leave a marked impression: I love you, you are important to me, thank you so much, how can I repay you, you look well today, life wouldn't be the same without you, you are irreplaceable.
What child's heart did not swell upon hearing words of pride uttered by his mother and father, that they believe in him, that they love her unconditionally? And who does not remember the last words spoken by a loved one?
Words can also destroy: I hate you, you disgust me, I wish you had never been born, I wish you were dead, get out of here, you make me sick, I don't love you anymore, I want a divorce, nobody cares about you, I will never speak to you again.
We are told as children that sticks and stones can break our bones but words can never hurt us. This is not true.
A broken bone can heal but the wound a word opens can fester for years. Words can break our hearts and our spirits. It is no coincidence that the word "words" is an anagram of the word "sword."
Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote: "As a Holocaust survivor, I know the power of words. The crematoria at Auschwitz did not begin with bricks, but with words, ugly, hateful words. And hateful words lead to hateful actions."
Finally, words convey meaningfulness. The most commonly used words in English are "the," "of," "and," "a," and "to." They are all connectives. That is what the search for meaning, is all about, connecting to each another.
Our words have consequences, therefore we must be cautious in uttering them; they house enormous power for good or evil, therefore we must choose them wisely; and they can be the essence of meaning, therefore we must use them to connect.
Let us especially cultivate the language of reverence. A vocabulary richer in words like faith, generosity, hope, trust, blessing, holy, and God will not only elevate our speech, but our lives.
You will be surprised, if not amazed!
MARK S. MILLER is the senior rabbi at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times