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The Power of Words

The relationship between words and their meanings is extremely complicated and belongs to the field of semantics. There are two meanings associated with words – denotation and connotation. Denotation is the literal meaning of words while connotation represents the various social overtones, cultural implications or emotional associations with words.

For example, families that do not consist of a married couple can be called a “broken home” or a “single-parent family.” Both phrases denote “families that do not consist of a married couple,” but “broken home” has a negative connotation, while “single-parent” is neutral in feeling.

When we change our words, our experiences often change as well. One way of describing a visit to the dentist might include the words – pain, hurting, yank, shot and drill. Upon reframing, these words might be – uncomfortable or a little pressure, bothersome, removal, injection and prepare.

George Orwell stated, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

Indeed. We often unknowingly use words that negate and negatively taint situations, others and ourselves. We could state, “There are over 2,000 vagrants in the city,” or use a more neutral statement, “There are over 2,000 people with no fixed address in the city.”

We may habitually tell ourselves that we are ‘overwhelmed’ or ‘stressed’ when in fact we are merely busy or tired. By reframing our words, we shift our attitude, and may find our breathing relaxes and our current situation is not so ‘overwhelming.’

Note the differences in connotation among these phrases. Did we ‘resign,’ ‘choose to leave’ or ‘quit’ our last job? Do we view our employer as a ‘boss’ or a ‘supervisor’? When we stop doing our tasks, do we consider this as being ‘lazy’ or merely ‘taking a break’? Are we ‘picky’ or ‘selective’ with our choices?

Of course, we need to be aware of choosing words that minimize or deny what we are truly feeling and experiencing. For example, we may refer to our body symptoms after a night of binge drinking as ‘feeling groggy’ when in fact we are truly ‘hung-over and nauseous.’ A ‘little shove’ might be used to lessen the severity of an actual ‘hit.’ Furthermore, we certainly do not want to be feeling ‘fine’ when truly we are upset, disappointed or sad.

We also need to be conscious of how words are used by advertisers and organizations. In the business world, we see a change in wording from ‘contract’ to ‘agreement,’ ‘salesperson’ to ‘consultant,’ ‘cost’ to ‘investment,’ ‘expensive’ to ‘top-of-the-line,’ and ‘charge’ to ‘processing fee.’ How do these words affect how we perceive the transaction?

An old Chinese proverb stated, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.”

Look for your word choices throughout the day. Notice the ‘shoulds,’ ‘have to,’ and ‘musts.’ Ideally, we would prefer to be ‘wanting,’ ‘preferring, ‘choosing,’ or ‘looking forward to’ an activity. Question the words used, seeking to use the most honest and fitting terms.

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.