Words are wonderful things, a little like snowflakes. Snowflakes? Yes, because no two are exactly alike.
Of course, I understand what a synonym is, but there're shades of meaning embedded in any given word. Meaning depends circumstance, on culture, sometimes on even the sex of the user; and meaning can and does change with the passage of time.
Animals may have language, but only humans use words. History can be told by rocks and human artifacts, but only words can preserve human discovery from one generation to the next.
Let's look at some of the oldest and most lofty of words: Scripture. All holy books -- the Bhagavad-Gita, the Quran as well as the Bible -- are the history of a people, and the wisdom of its culture. Scripture begins with the spoken word, and only after many repetitions is it written down and becomes "The Holy Word."
Skeptics may not believe in scripture, but if they are as educated and smart as they think they are, they should take scripture seriously for in it one finds the fears, aspirations and inner workings of the human heart. However, it's important to remember scripture is made up of words. Malleable, mutable words.
These words mean different things to different people at different times. They are not an absolute, and Holy scripture can become toxic when it leave the realm of the spiritual and enters the world of politics, because it is in the political arena that words can shape or destroy a society.
Religion is not so much the opiate of the masses as it is a tool of the elite. Ruthless man and women use words to manipulate and distract, and Holy Scripture is no exception.
Some words speak to reason, some to the heart and some trigger emotions that are enemies of both heart and reason. Adolf Hitler was a master at it. He held the German people enthralled even as he brought their nation to ruin.
Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill also were great orators. Churchill's "blood, sweat, and tears" will be remembered as long as there is an England. Today's politicians are not usually as eloquent, but they don't have to be. A lot of study has gone into knowing just which words reach the heart and which trigger the emotions.
When Newt Gingrich ran for the U.S. House of Representative, he said language would be one of the key mechanism of control for the Republican Party. He even went so far as to publish a list of words that the party should use and another list of words they should avoid. They can be found on the web today; look for a 1996 GOPAC memo.
This was just the beginning. How many times have you heard some politician talk about freedom or liberty or "our way of life?" These are feel-good words for sure, but what do they actually mean for the average citizen? We are not free to do or have whatever we want. Life constrains us all at every turn.
Why does a well known Atlanta talk-show personality refer to the super-rich as "high achievers" and not "economic opportunists?" What's the difference between the common good and well-being for all? Studies at Emory University have presented some of these key words to subjects who are hooked to brain-imaging equipment. When the words run counter to the subject's preconditioned political beliefs, they bypass the reasoning parts of the brain and go directly the areas that process emotions.
Thinking is not involved in many of our major political decisions. We are not processing information, we are reacting to emotional cues. Think "illegal alien." Think "homosexual lifestyle." Think "taxes." Once words take on this kind of emotional baggage, addressing some of our most pressing problems becomes next to impossible.
Words ARE like snowflakes They can be piled higher and deeper.
Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.