The Words Matter

By Eleanor Shelton

On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress announcing the colonies’ separation from Great Britain. The Declaration was actually adopted on July 2, and a clean copy signed by the congress on August 2, 1776, but let’s not quibble about a couple of days when the results were so momentous.

The past few years have caused me to look more closely at our origins, our history, and the words that our government’s founders used.

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained, & to assume among the powers of the earth the equal & independent station to which the laws of nature & of nature’s god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind in this great nation.

–Thomas Jefferson

So the document begins. It goes on to list all the injuries King George III had committed to his American subjects and then ends, “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Powerful stuff mainly from the quill of Thomas Jefferson. This isn’t a history lesson, though if you haven’t read the Constitution, I highly recommend it. This year, I’ve been thinking about the power of words and their meanings. Those words that were bickered over, edited, adopted, and signed were the foundation for everything that came after in our unique, grand, but intrinsically flawed nation.

The Declaration of Independence used to be read aloud at public gatherings every Fourth of July. Today, while all Americans have heard of it, all too few have read more than its second sentence. 

—Randy E. Barnett, The Washington Post

Each word was considered and weighed based on its meaning and impact. Despite the humanistic complexities relative to slavery, patriarchy, and monarchy, the Declaration of Independence embodied high treason punishable by death.

Words have significant power.

Today, words are working to both undermine the state of our union and to heal the rift. “Effective vaccines” and “Gathering again” wage bitter battle against “election fraud,” “insurrection,” and “systemic racism.” These contradictions can be listed for days. I think it’s important that we, as a nation, refer back to the implicit meaning of the words in the

Declaration.

“We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

This political and cultural experiment of The United States has always been better when we consider the words we use with each other. Words like understanding, empathy, trust, love, and humane. As writers, we can create characters who model those ideals.

Our words, our stories, and our truths can solve disputes, open the aperture for our commonalities, and show us examples of love in extraordinary settings. We carefully carve out the words our characters use. We can adopt that same thoughtful strategy to the words we use to communicate with each other.

In fiction, our characters are given thoughts, deeds, and words, but are often delineated by what they don’t say, what they hold back.

The men who founded this nation could only imagine how their words would be shared across the world. I don’t know how many of them could have imagined how instantaneously words and ideas could travel globally. For better or worse, we often write in knee-jerk reaction, without thought to the consequences or dire effects those words may ignite.

The crafting of the Declaration of Independence took patience, thought, and carful construction to unite the “People.” And even then, those ideals fell pray to the worst of human nature.

Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.

—Lao Tzu

We can recognize the universal application of the words . . . “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” means all humankind.

This “grand experiment” takes work. Let’s dig deep and get to it.

What It Said And What They Meant

Word Choice And Its Importance

Communicating Across Borders

Speak Wisely

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