Sticks and stones may break my bones…


I caught up with a friend this week, and for whatever reason, our conversation turned to how language… specifically words… are really nothing more than labels.

You and I are exchanging information right now, which for lack of a better description we can call written English. I say “hello” and you understand. But in different languages I could be saying “hola”… “bonjour”… “ciao”… and as long as you and I have some understanding in place, a message connects.

Bring this concept a bit further and we can look at things like what makes the sky the sky. As a physical entity, there it is. Atmosphere and sunshine and clouds and stars and… but for you and I to be exchanging information and referencing it, the “sky” could be “ground”… could be “pink”… “rag”… “tortoise”… “pear”… it really doesn’t matter.

The label… the word… that we are taught for sake of communication… is sky. While the origin of the word might be fascinating, it doesn’t change the physical entity. And if we have an understanding with a different word, that could work just as well. Heck, I could say “look at those chirpy ankle biters”… and you could know what I mean, lifting your head to see the fluffy white clouds.

(I was very tempted to say something about labels and joke about something like… let’s say “Mr. Ticklesworth”… but then I realized that a couple of you might actually refer to something as “Mr. Ticklesworth” and my joke wouldn’t work. Or… worse yet… you might think I was being serious or using personal experience. So I didn’t. That said… if you do refer to anything, or anyone’s anything, as “Mr. Ticklesworth”… please get some help. Moving on…)

The concept I’m trying establish here is simply that words only have the power that we give to them. Something that may be viewed as insulting, ignorant, obscene, offensive, or any other negative meaning (especially a powerfully negative meaning), is not any of that because of the combination of letters used to spell it.

For example… are we really disguising things… hiding things… changing things… by saying “f-word” or “f-bomb” instead of the actual word? Is that description really more polite? Is it honestly more acceptable?

The easy answer is yes… of course it’s more acceptable and more polite. Just the use of such terms on the radio and in the papers and all over television confirms that idea. But again… is it really? My original question meant does saying “the f-word” really disguise what you are saying, hide what you mean, or change the connection it has?

And the answer is… no, it doesn’t. What it changes is the context.

If I say “f-word you” and mean “f-word you”… well… that use of the term is significantly different than someone saying “Bob used the f-word” during a conversation. Right? One is the use with the intent… one is the reporting of the event. And yet, in both cases, the casual observer still fills in the blanks. “F-word” becomes the real thing… and, by moving that along… the same thing. And yet it isn’t. It’s the context that shifts perception.

We give the words power.

And so I laugh when people act as though an apology actually changes the way a person thinks or what a person believes. Someone says something and people go bonkers… and then with a statement from a public relations office, a listing of people that have worked side-by-side with our quotable notable, and some phone calls to leading organizations or figureheads for the offended… *** presto *** we have a teachable moment and forgiveness.

It’s not that giving a person a second chance isn’t the appropriate action. Absolutely it is. Instead, what I find humorous is that after the public penance, people honestly believe a person has changed.

Well… maybe. Sure, some people may actually regret some actions and pain and troubles they may have caused. But more likely what we have done is allowed an apology to shift the focus, not the intent. The person may be just as ignorant, biased and offensive as ever… just now forgiven. The apology wasn’t sincere, but merely to deflect attention.

The world is an imperfect place. We’re going to see live nude girls, utter and hear profanity, and be exposed to unspeakable violence and horrors. No one can be isolated from it all. Some efforts of prevention… actions instead of reactions… are wonderful things. And, unfortunately, some efforts of prevention may be necessary.

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As I was writing this article, I thought of people I know that have been in abusive relationships… where it has been proven time and time again that words can hurt, with devastating cruelty. And I saw some news articles about places dealing with cyberbullying and other issues.

I am not looking to minimize the importance of addressing such issues, or the horrible ways that some people behave.

Instead, it began as a wandering train of thought from what makes the combination of letters that spell “blue” strike those of us speaking English as color… an emotion… and so on. Apply the theory to any language. Expand the theory to include symbols and actions.

The meandering journey of that train eventually led it to a thought about what gives words power… and a realization that it isn’t the word itself, more often it’s the intent.

And where I am headed is that sticks and stones… and people… break bones.

It’s not whether words will ever hurt you… they will… when used as a weapon… when used with a purpose. And when they hurt, I can only wish it will be because of something offered with dignity and respect, an honesty that allows growth and healing and positive outcomes.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it always works. But… and here’s the point of this essay… that isn’t the fault of the words.

The internet becomes the perfect example. People have a forum… whether by their own web site or perhaps the comment sections for others… where they act anonymously, saying whatever with few rules to keep them in check. If you’ve looked around at these, you know that while ignorant loud-mouthed jerks may not be the majority, they are not rare.

What gives meaning? What makes perception and understanding reality?

Not the word itself.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at