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What Would Fred Say?

Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity.
~Yehuda Berg

When we sit down before our keyboards—or lift our pens—we consider what words to write, how to arrange them, and why, when given a choice, we sometimes choose writing over a conversation. As an impulsive person who frequently finds spontaneous conversation uncomfortable, my intentions are best articulated when I write. Writing enables me to be thoughtful, provides me an opportunity to change my mind, gives me time to recall what I can’t remember, and allows me to be provocative without the risk of reddening my face. Therefore, I choose to write, but when it comes to which words to use in my writing and how to arrange them, my options are infinite. In part, because the Merriam Webster dictionary continues to expand, adding hundreds, sometimes thousands of new words a year. In 2018, they added among others, ‘binge-watch’ (no surprise there) and ‘Seussian’ to their dictionary. With so many possible word choices, I wonder at the psychology in play when we make those choices.

In addition to the almost infinite number of word choices, is the choice in how to arrange them on the page. Though admittedly grammar rules provide fewer options, still there is typically more than one way to state something and for me, the best way depends on what it is I’m trying to say. If the point I wish to make is of vital importance, the word choice I opt for is the one that will have the strongest impact—this is also where punctuation can act as an additional truss to prop up my argument. But the words that wound us need little trussing. Even a slight inference in the direction of negativity can harm us when we’re starting out in life.

What child has not had the first-hand experience of words as weapons to inflict pain, embarrassment, shame, and fear—think elementary school playground. And yet, throughout our lives, we also experience words as tools to repair relationships, effect a compromise, or to express love. It is our words that lead us to war, but it is also our words that return us to peace. Words wound us emotionally, entertain us, rescue us from despair, crush our self-esteem, and imbue us with confidence. Used for oppression, entertainment, and didactic purposes, words are catalysts for change, and they sow the seeds of enlightenment.

I despair over the wretchedness in the world. I’m frustrated at the destruction of our environment and ashamed of my own role in that destruction. Our ignorance and for some, apathy, will be the ruination of our grandchildren’s future home—we have no right to do this, and yet we persist. But just as volatile, destructive, and specious words sway the pendulum of public opinion into this environmental abyss, the poignancy of other words has the power to transform my despair to hope—words like community, acceptance, gratitude, and kindness. Of the nature of words, Nathaniel Hawthorne ascribes them no authority when they stand on their own. He believed that it is only when a writer puts them together that they can be either destructive or helpful. He wrote,

Words: so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.

This concept doesn’t completely hold true today for I can think of many potent and “evil” words that stand completely on their own—the racial and ethnic slurs I overheard as a child come to mind.

The point is that word choice is paramount. Today, there are trainings specifically around teaching the appropriate word choice in any given environment. Whether you work for an agency that provides supports to individuals with disabilities or with college students on campus, there are specific words you are meant to use or not. It’s crucial to consider the words we use judiciously so that we may show one another respect and greater humanity.

Just as Merriam Webster is adding new words to its dictionary, we find ourselves abscising others from our lexicon because they’re now deemed offensive. In fact, some words are so offensive we can’t bring ourselves to speak or write them—I myself continue to reject the pernicious “n” word.

In discussing writing, C.S. Lewis pointed out the value in selective word choice for a different reason. For it’s not only the offensive words that we need to excise or set aside for another day. Sometimes, it’s the words we labor over to improve our writing. Of this, his premise was simple, don’t lead with the fancy words, you might need them later.

C. S. Lewis notwithstanding, there are times when that bigger word must be said—or written. The formal essay used for academic and scholarly pursuits, for example, requires formal and precise diction which includes using more professional word choices appropriate to the subject. The writer is expected to have gleaned information from external sources and his or her word choices should reflect this.

Moreover, the higher the stakes, the more critical the word choice. I’ve recently begun an internship working with the marketing and fundraising departments of a non-profit organization. My work is meant to both raise the organization’s profile and hopefully, revenue. I think about the power of words as I work on my first assignment—a feature story. It’s about a STEM class I observed in which three medically fragile and cognitively impaired young adults were participating. They were performing tasks with a degree of success to which one might think them incapable and I want to honor them without coming off as condescending. Too much surprise at their abilities could be demeaning and yet they’d participated as fully as it was possible for them, which to some extent was due to the ingenuity of their teacher and the aides who were there to guide them. But it was also through their own perseverance that each student achieved some degree of success that day. This is what I want to shine the spotlight on, and therefore my word choices matter. My piece will appear in the organization’s magazine and because I’m still writing it at this moment, it’s on my mind—insidiously inserting itself here. I know that I need to find a balanced, accurate, heartwarming way in which to describe what I witnessed that morning with being overly sentimental. I need to take the time to find the right words.

In this age of instant transmission of information, now more than ever, the right words matter. One careless and ill-chosen word in the workplace can prompt a lawsuit. Unfortunate and deplorable word choice by a world leader can offend an entire nation.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” – President Trump’s widely reported comments made in private during a meeting on immigration,  11 Jan 2018

Conversely, I’m reminded of someone who used the right words to positively impact the lives of countless children. I’m referring to an important string of words uttered on May 1, 1969, that helped preserve funding for a valuable children’s program and the Public Broadcasting System as a whole. The setting was a U.S. Senate Subcommittee meeting on communication. The committee—as directed by President Nixon—planned to slash the public television budget in half during a time when the Vietnam War was escalating.

The speaker that day was Mister (Fred) Rogers and his mild-mannered plea touched all who listened. He recited in his short speech the words he felt made a difference in children’s lives. Words he spoke as he ended every Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood program—something he referred to as “an expression of care”:

“You’ve made today a special day by just you being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you and I like you just the way you are.”

These words express a simple, but vitally important sentiment. Fred Roger’s word choices not only showed an “expression of care” for all the children who watched his program but the gravity of his message helped save needed funding for the Public Broadcasting System.

Cruelty is a contagion that is passed from one generation to the next and it begins with the words we use when we speak to our babies. Anyone who remembers being a child understands the capacity of a single word to propel us toward success or self-destruction—a word with the power to irreparably alter our lives. A teacher or a parent advising a child at age eleven that he has no natural affinity for something he embraces can impel him to abandon the very thing that inspires him. Conversely, one word of encouragement may have been all it took to set Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Helen Keller, Nikola Tesla, and the enigmatic Oscar Wilde off in the direction that would define their lives. We will never know which words inspired them to their destinies but we cannot doubt that one or more significant words of encouragement or provocation played a pivotal role.

Social situations will always require thoughtful word choice for a successful conversation, but today there are a host of land mines to navigate. There are now multiple terms to refer to gender, it’s best to say “differently abled” rather than “disabled” when referring to a person with a disability, and Native Americans are no longer “Indians” to name but a few developments beginning in the last century. This is by no means a criticism to our hyper-attentiveness to word choice, but rather a reminder. A reminder that through lack of care in our word choice, serious emotional damage ensues. A reminder that there’s a better way. Through his expression of care, Fred Rogers sought to instill the next generation with positive self-esteem which developed in childhood, would serve them well for the entirety of their lives.

Perhaps whenever we ponder our word choice we should ask ourselves, “What would Fred say?”

by Sonja Martineau

Tags: Fred Rogers, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, STEM, The Power of Words, Yehuda Berg