I bought a wooden sign at Hobby Lobby the other day. I was actually there to purchase a single picture frame to showcase some of my daughter’s school art work when I noticed a fifty percent off sale sign for all of the wall hangings. Needless to say, I got lost in the aisle. Actually, I got lost in the beautiful words. Each of the signs beckoned to me with their varied sappy and sacred phrases. I love you to the moon and back or Let Us Gather or It Is Well with My Soul. These sayings evoke happy thoughts for me and speak out what I want the message of my home to say. I could buy them all if I had enough wall space! When I’m surrounded by beautiful phrases and scriptural admonitions of hearth and togetherness, I feel like Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail when she talks about reading Pride and Prejudice. “I get lost in the language,” she tells Tom Hanks. “Words like: Thither. Mischance. Felicity.”
So even though I was there to buy a simple picture frame and use my forty percent off coupon, I wound up hustling a large, black wooden sign into my cart painted with oversized white letters that bespoke: The Best Place to Be Is Together. I keep buying these signs and hanging them all over my house as if I believe the words themselves will transform my family and that our lives will suddenly showcase what we read thereupon. And I think they will. These words are transforming me, and goodness knows I long for transformation. Isn’t that why we read the Scriptures? Or great books? Or seek out meaningful conversations? Because we believe they will somehow manifest through us the very noble attributes we are reading and discussing. Like osmosis. Wordmosis. Sort of like the writing on the wall in the book Daniel. That visible message was a prophetic word over Belshazzar’s kingdom; so I’m in good company hanging words upon my walls that I would like to prophesy over my family life.
The Best Place to Be Is Together currently hangs over my dining room window. I put it there because it’s always a happy moment when all of us are home and we are sitting down to an actual meal that I’ve prepared, enjoying good conversation and reflecting on the day together, hearing one another’s highs and lows and being together. The sign may not magically make us gather, but the words do serve as reminders to us—like the chorus in one of Shakespeare’s plays calling out warnings of impending events to the players. As my family congregates at the table, that mounted message reminds us that what we are doing is good.
In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver states that “the right to utter a sentence is one of the greatest liberties.” Why? Because words shape the world. Weaver goes on to say: “The changes wrought by sentences are changes in the world rather than the physical earth, but it is to be remembered that changes in the world bring about changes in the earth” (118-19).
Words are important. They impact us. They affect our moods, express our feelings, and allow us to communicate ideas back and forth. In many ways, they give meaning to our living. I think this is why I enjoy editing papers and helping students select the very best word. Words matter. Choosing the correct word ensures (not insures—we are providing no medical coverage here) that you actually say what you intend to say. Remember that old adage, “Say what you mean but mean what you say”? It’s important to me that we mean what we say. In his book The Office of Assertion, Scott F. Crider reminds us that student essays are often poorly done and lack persuasiveness because from the very beginning they fail to identify what their argument is and then hone that into a well-stated thesis. The well-chosen grouping of words gives sharp focus to our ideas. If Aristotle’s statement holds true that the unexamined life is not worth living, then I would submit that the unexamined word is not worth writing. As true humans, made in the image of a God who created through speech, we must learn to dip our own brushes into the wells of words and paint with them artistically.
In the eyes of the ancients words had a truly human value transcending any practical applications. . . . It was the one means of handing on everything that made man man, the whole cultural heritage that distinguished civilized men from barbarians.
—Henri Irene Morrou, A History of Education in Antiquity
A love of words causes me to buy dictionaries from used book sales, play Scrabble, secretly correct my friends’ grammar, and publicly correct my own children’s grammar. Words are important because they awaken images. It also makes me thrilled to teach Rhetoric as both an art and discipline this year to sophomores and juniors. I look forward to helping them navigate oceans of vocabulary and fish for just the right word which will set their argument apart and allow them to lead another soul toward truth. That’s what Socrates would say. In Phaedrus, as Socrates critiques and questions the techniques of the Sophists and other rhetoricians of his day, he tells his eager student that “oratory is the art of enchanting the soul.” It is the enchantment of a soul that brings about real change in the world.
If Socrates himself does not serve as credible enough authority on which to demonstrate the power of words, we need only look at both Old and New Testament writings. Proverbs tells us that “death and life are in the power of the tongue and they that love it will eat the fruit thereof.” But it is the author of Hebrews who plays the trump card when he states that the Son is “sustaining all things by His powerful words” (Heb 1:3). When we employ words, we are crafting with the same substance that sustains the world and we are potentially giving voice to the divine image. This is why we teach grammar. This is why we read beautiful works of literature. This is why syntax and syllogisms both matter. Language makes the world go round. In classical education we must continue to give credence to words and wield them well, instructing in Rhetoric, essay writing, and the art of persuasion toward what is true. We must teach our students and our children to enchant other souls with the beauty of words and allow them to both sustain us and transform us as we do. Words are how we change the world.