Mark your words

Whoever came up with that old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was in serious denial about something.

Of course, I have no idea what, as I gave up mind-reading a long time ago. What I do know is that anyone who tells you that they aren’t affected by other people’s words is either lying to you or lying to themselves.

Let me clarify before someone starts getting all linguistic on me. I’m not referring to words in and of themselves. Technically, individual words and their meaning are neutral. I am talking about words plus their meaning plus their intent. That is, the meaning that we, as a society and as users of, attribute to words that are said in a specific situation. Other people’s words affect us in ways both trivial and profound. And while this premise in itself isn’t all that profound, it shouldn’t be viewed as trivial, either.

Regardless of what children or judges might declare, words, unleashed unto the world, can never be “taken back” or “stricken from the record.” This goes for words that come out of someone’s mouth or that are channeled through typing fingers. Once they’re out, they’re out. In the more pleasant and inviting voice of the great American poet, Emily Dickinson (for what is a column about words without quoting one of the greatest masters of them?):

“A word is dead when it is said, some say — I say it just begins to live that day.”

The way I see it, sometimes words can damage a person more than would sticks and stones. That’s because the pain that results from negative speech, whether that speech be of the child bully or abusive partner variety — and everything in between — is internal. The speech affects the psyche. Much like mental illness, the pain cannot be seen, and so it’s more difficult to identify or acknowledge as something that is “real” as opposed to all in your own head. When a person then questions the legitimacy, so to speak, of his own pain, a whole other layer of pain is draped over the original pain.

I think that’s a scenario with which most people can identify. The internal pang that results from negative speech is an emotional, as opposed to a physical, reaction. In that regard, I wonder if this comparison might help people who have not encountered mental illness to better understand its “realness.” That certainly is an idea worth exploring.

Just as words can knock down, they also can build up. And you don’t need a lot of them to send a positive message. One of the shortest and simplest sentences I know is also the most powerful: “It gets better.”

I like these three words strung together because of the sentiment’s universality and applicability. I actually can’t think of a more powerful message than that. In fact, I might as well end this column right now. I won’t, because I’m not yet at the allotted word count. Still, if you’d like to end on a high note, stop reading when you get to the end of this sentence.

(Well, that didn’t work.)

One of the many reasons why I tend to choose writing over other forms of communication is that there’s more time to think about how to phrase the message I want to get across. As opposed to with the spoken word, there’s more time to review it when it’s written down. Of course, as an editor, there’s also more time to fuss about every little detail—and once the finished product is in print, there inevitably will be something I wish I had changed. At that point, I mentally slap myself on the forehead. (In my mind, there’s a permanent black- and-blue mark on that spot.)

The funny thing is, no matter what you write or how you phrase it, others inevitably will read the message in the wrong way — or at least in a way that doesn’t line up with what you had intended. Okay, it’s not exactly funny, but sometimes all you can do in certain situations is laugh about the absurdity of it all. You can take hours writing something just so, and within seconds, that intended meaning gets thrown out the window by the person reading it.

So then I reconsider my approach. Is the spoken word possibly the better method of communicating? The spoken word, for the most part, tends to be quicker, more to the point, and less permanent. There’s the same risk of being misunderstood, but there’s also more room for second guessing what exactly was said or how it was said. Which basically means that, if you want, you can claim that you didn’t mean what you said in the manner in which the other person says you meant it.

I don’t know. Is a person held less accountable if he talks, as opposed to writes, negatively? And if that’s the case, doesn’t it also mean that the person doesn’t get enough credit for saying something positive?

Well, now I’m all confused.

It’s amazing how vague a person can be while writing a column about words. I’m aware of it, of course, and it’s completely intentional. This way, people reading can apply the concepts to their own life situations without specific examples getting in the way. Then again, anyone can take these words and read into them any number of things that I didn’t intend.

Maybe we all should stick to text messaging. It takes qualities from both written and spoken words. Like spoken words, it’s often quick and to the point. Like other written words, there’s sometimes more time to think about phrasing. And of course, tone, intention and meaning never ever are misinterpreted over text.

Maybe it would be easier to live in earlier times, when words were born out of necessity and there was no positive or negative message behind the definition. Those days before, when words were, indeed, neutral.

Water. Fire. Danger. Coffee.

Though, come to think of it, maybe those words were even more ambiguous than full sentences:

“That caveman over there just said the word ‘water.’ Is he informing me out of the goodness of his own heart, so that I won’t die of thirst? Or does he mean that he has water and will let me have some, but he’s really saying it begrudgingly? Or is he taunting me by telling me that there’s water, but he’s keeping it for himself? Or is he telling me that there’s water so that he can keep all the coffee for himself? So many possibilities! That’s so nice! That’s so mean! Why can’t he explain himself better? Oh no, now he’s throwing sticks and stones at me! Danger! Run!”

For all these words about words, I sure haven’t said anything significant. Well, at least I didn’t insult anyone. I mean, I don’t think I did. Did I? I’m starting to regret having written any of this. And now it’s already in print and I can’t do a thing about it. Next time, I’m going to write a column about nothing. Or did I already just do that?

About the Author
Dena Croog is a writer and editor in Teaneck, New Jersey, whose work has focused primarily on psychiatry, mental health, and the book publishing industry. She is the founder of Refa’enu, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mood disorder awareness and support. More information about the organization and its support groups can be found at You also can email with any questions or comments.