"Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you can get the right
ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little."
-- Playwright Tom Stoppard wrote, and a character in his play "The
Real Thing" said.
Someone sent me the thought with this column in mind. Or so it
seemed. The e-mail was sent to the address for this column. It
arrived unsigned, with no further comment. It could, I suppose, have
been spam mail.
In any case, it got me thinking. It got me thinking about words
and, if they are sacred, what it means to respect them. It got me
thinking about nudging the world and what all these things mean to
The idea that words are sacred, to be used with care, seems as old
as time, and for good reason: Words are powerful. The familiar
schoolyard rhyme, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can
never hurt me," belies the truth.
Ideas, laws, men and women, all -- justly and unjustly -- have
been taken down by words. The right words in the right order. For
reasons right or wrong.
Among the Ten Commandments is the law: "You shall not bear false
witness against your neighbor." (Deuteronomy 5:20)
And Jesus preached, "Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man;
but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man." (Matthew 15:11)
"On the day of judgment men will render account for every careless
word they utter. By your words you will be justified, and by your
words you will be condemned." (Matthew 12:36, 37)
One proverb says, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh
word stirs up anger." (Proverbs 15:1) We can ruin ourselves. We can
devastate each other with words. Or with words, we can comfort and
encourage, instruct and defend.
Isaiah the prophet wrote of the power "to sustain with a word, him
that is weary." (Isaiah 50:4) The right words. At the right time.
Last November, I attended a conference in Florida where the topic
was ethics and excellence in column writing. For three days, we
talked about this business of words and our responsibility as
columnists to ourselves, to each other and above all, to you, the
reader, when we use them.
Journalist Keith Woods, a member of the ethics faculty at The
Poynter Institute, gave us two lists.
The excellent journalist, he told us, "stresses accuracy, strives
for precision, holds the powerful accountable, gives voice to the
voiceless, tells as much truth as possible, remains independent of
undue influence, doesn't hurt unnecessarily, informs, educates,
provokes thought, evokes emotion, entertains."
And readers, he said, expect that "you'll be fair, even if you are
biased; accurate and precise, even when the facts are muddled;
thoughtful, even if you don't have all the answers."
When I first heard those lists, I thought they might be good
reasons never to get out of bed in the morning again. But I think
they are some of those right words in the right order. A nudge. And
in this column, I try to live up to them.
Some of you from time to time write to tell me you think I do. You
tell me this column inspires you. You say it makes you think. You
have said it shows compassion for those who struggle to live a decent
life in a complex and, sometimes, bewildering world. For your words
and for the time you take to write them -- for the nudge to keep on
writing -- I thank you.
If I nudge you, I hope it's to this: Look for the truth. And don't
twist it. Be thoughtful. Be fair. Don't cause harm and don't offend,
unnecessarily. Hold back a harsh word. Offer a kind one. Nudge the
world. Go ahead. Nudge the world a little. Nudge it for the better.
* MICHELE MARR is a freelance writer from Huntington Beach. She
can be reached at email@example.com.