Double Edged Words
“My memory is a journal and words are carving their meanings into my mental cortex.”
My hands pause above the keyboard, fingers perched like soldiers awaiting orders. A subject, an image, a word. . .What’s the word I’m looking for? I pause for a creative command that never comes. Words are fickle like that – fickle, yet furious in their effect. So, I push away my laptop, close my eyes, and open my mental journal. Pages fly, flip, and falter. I see sixth-grade handwriting scrawled in a blue diary with ponies on the cover. I read. I remember.
Rubber slammed against slick gym floors, my green shorts hanging below my knees. I was 11 years old, a Marine brat fresh off the plane to North Carolina, and peering at the basketball hoop through glasses with metal dragonflies glued on the sides. But I was winning. My shot slid through the net, bumping Lexi’s out of the way. Swish. Another point for me in our game of HORSE. And then I said it. “Ho.” Now, I know its definition in the Oxford Dictionary: “a woman who engages in promiscuous sexual intercourse, usually for money.” I didn’t back then. I only knew of the garden hoe, or the jolly laughs of Santa Claus.
So I grinned wide, pushed my glasses up on my nose and yelled, “Ho!” at Lexi.
“What?” she said.
“You missed two.” I stared down at my sneakers. “That’s H-O?”
The lower half of her face cracked, teeth flashing an eerie grin. Suddenly, she had a story to spread around Tucker Creek Middle School: goody-two-shoes-Casey had cursed her out in class. In the Old Testament Book of Proverbs, King Solomon wrote about the power of words. According to him, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21). I felt like dying that day as I trudged through four more classes, each filled with whispers and stares.
One unbelieving boy I didn’t know even walked up and asked, “Did you really call Lexi that?”
I nodded – I couldn’t lie, could I? – but couldn’t force out the words to explain. Until, after escaping the school bus, I tackled Mom on the sidewalk near our house.
“I don’t know what I said!” Her blue sweater muffled my words. “I was just playing basketball…”
Mom told me about my bad word as we lay on my parent’s queen-size bed. My thoughts – How stupid could I be? Why hadn’t anyone ever told me? What’s better, being intentionally mean or a naïve fool? – whirled like the ceiling fan.
Years later, I still flinch at the memory. So, I close that journal and mentally open another. Mickey Mouse smiles on the notebook’s engraved leather cover; the entry has “October 2014” scrawled in the top corner. I remember another bed, this time a twin. We were sprawled over the pillows, the credits of Inception scrolling up the TV screen. The lights were dim, dorm room quiet. Nick talked first.
“Don’t take offense, but your roommate and I made a bet a few weeks back. How much do you weigh?”
I grinned. Since losing fifteen pounds from celiac disease complications, I’d become as used to answering that question as following a gluten free diet. “Ninety-ish?”
A short laugh, quiet voice. “I’m two of you.” He laughed again. “Give me a second. I’m processing.”
I burrowed my head deeper into the pillow, trying to shape my lips into words previously left unsaid. “I don’t mind it. I like it…the difference.” Pause. “You make me feel safe.”
Nick’s arm snaked underneath my back, hand tracing circles on my side. “Good. You should feel comfortable. You should feel safe. And you should feel beautiful.”
An awkward smile coated my lips. Beautiful. A simple stringing of morphemes and Latin roots that somehow meant so much more. The New Yorker’s 2014 article, “Word Magic,” offers a more modern perspective on the power of words. While little empirical data supports the Whorfianism theory – that people’s language controls their worldview – more people are accepting a milder version: language impacts thought. Would Nick have found me beautiful if the word “beautiful” didn’t exist? Would I have smiled as widely if he had said “pulchritudinous” or “bonita” or some other synonym that didn’t roll off the tongue? I didn’t know; I still don’t. What I do know? A word must have a hint of magic when, however many times Nick says it, it always makes me smile.
One more journal flies open in my mind – a folded up scrap of printer paper with “San Diego Christian Writer’s Conference: November 2014” typed on top. Ink from notes on Phillip Yancey’s speech has bled through from the back of the paper. Standing behind the podium, the best-selling Christian author looked like a Popsicle stick with a dust bunny for hair. His white dress shirt and black pants hung off his frame. “Writing is one of the thinnest forms of communication,” he said. “It’s just a page. It’s flat. Two dimensional.”
I ran my hand along the length of my paper, tracing dried ink. It was true – my notes were nothing more than tree corpses decorated with chemical blood. Yet, a particular curse word could transform me into a naïve, sweaty sixth-grader. Reading “beautiful” could make me hear Nick’s voice. Indeed, Yancey’s very career illustrates the dichotomy of words. He wrote books translated into 35 languages, but speaks about them all over the world; he makes a living off of crafting words, but also by discounting them.
Forty-five minutes later, Phillip Yancey lifted his head up from his notes. “Words have a certain power and a certain weakness,” he said. I couldn’t help but nod, carving the words into my paper, underlined in black ink. I close the journals, open my eyes and place my fingers back on my laptop keyboard. That’s it! I think. That’s the word: sword. “Writers call the pen their ‘sword,’” I type. “Maybe words should be feared for their double-edged nature instead.”