For as far back as I can remember, I’ve loved words. I love the sounds, the way a word can slip from my tongue like cool water thru a stream or the jagged way it might flow like rocks along a riverbed. I love the way a single word can change a story or a life for it is a well-chosen word that will stay with us forever, something I learned long ago.
When I was nine and standing in the gleaming kitchen of a childhood friend, her brother came running in and shouted – “Dad’s coming.” In those days when most mothers stayed at home while dad worked, dad’s arrival home was a highlight of the day, and on Friday – payday in most homes, it was especially happy. My friend’s mother, standing at the sink, wiped her hands on her apron, and turned. “Is he sober?” she whispered.
Sober – a word I hadn’t heard before, but I immediately liked the sound, the weight of the word, the way it had slipped effortlessly through her lips. It sounded like a good word, a word that mattered. My friend’s brother hesitated, and then bobbed his head up and down. “Yes,” he said proudly, “he’s sober.” And his mother smiled. “Thank God,” she said turning back to the sink.
And I took note of the word, and rolled it around in my brain – sober. I liked the sound though I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. It was then, with a crash and a bang, that the front door flew open, and my friend’s father stood there, swaying, bracing himself on the door frame.
“I’m home,” he said, his speech slurred, his eyes glassy.
The mother turned on her son. “You said he was sober!”
“I thought that’s what the word meant,” he sniffled. “I didn’t know.” His mother raised a brow, and chastened, the boy hurried away, his understanding of that word forever changed. And standing there silently, my reverence for the capacity of a single word to change everything grew exponentially, and that respect for words continues to this day.
As a nurse, I have favorite words – benign among them. I love the softness of the word, the way it almost bounces from my tongue when I say it out loud. And I love too that its meaning is as pure as its sound. Benign – a lush word filled with promise and hope, a word that changes everything in the millisecond it takes to speak it. And as a writer there are words I turn to again and again to evoke an image or an emotion – swell, flush, bubbled, knot – and I have to catch myself and edit and edit again.
Words are the currency, the tools of our lives, and they can be as magical and pure as a fresh snow or as coarse and biting as a pelting rain. Evocative and powerful all at once, the words we choose can change the way we see the world, and, perhaps more importantly, they can change the way the world sees us.
And when you’re searching for just the right word, summon up the courage to be generous with praise, and kindness, and to bite back those words that might offend, and never, ever be afraid to use the most powerful word of all – love. Use it early and often. Let it slide from your lips and roll through your thoughts, and fill up your days. At the end of your life, it is the only word that will matter.
Initially published in Huffington Post.