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The Power of Words

Words that were uttered and those purposely omitted have always fascinated me.

At an early age, I learned that what was said was not always what was meant, and this became my first lesson in the power of words. I also came to understand the influence of unspoken language.

“Your daughter has a pretty face,” was what I often heard from one of my mother’s friends and acquaintances. Even as a little girl, I knew that pretty was a positive word, although I did nothing to earn the adjective. I soon understood the underlying message—I was pleasant to look at from the neck up while other parts of me just didn’t measure up.

It was at the same time that I heard other words, codes for a powerful message in my young life: When my mother told me to “Watch it,” she really meant: You’re gaining weight; you’re chubby; you need to stop eating so much. I became incredibly adept at reading between the lines—decoding seemingly innocuous sentences that held lasting power over my present and future.

My mother determined that I was middle of the road in my intelligence, which she honestly viewed to be a positive concept. “People have problems when they are too smart,” she would say. At eleven, then, I should have been grateful for having fewer troubles as a result of my mediocrity, but I wasn’t. Ever since, I have spent my lifetime clawing my way out of this category.

But still, in the depth of my mind, little words, such as lucky and chance have, at times, overtaken me, forcing me to question whether I actually understood the material a professor presented—or was it that I was simply lucky in earning my strong grades.

I became quite adept at euphemisms, as they were also a part of my family’s language. Throughout her life, my mother refused to use the word cancer, referring to it as The Big C. Once, when someone we knew was stricken with this horrible disease, I pointed to my head, referencing her brain tumor. My mother, aghast, almost yelled, “Don’t do that, Barbara. Don’t touch yourself there. That’s bad luck.”

I also learned I couldn’t talk about illnesses, either; so, even when my mother received her own cancer diagnosis at 80, we didn’t talk about it. When waiting for the results to confirm what we already knew, she said, “Do you think it is bad?” Bad, then, became her code for everything that was going to transpire once she knew The Big C had officially entered her life.

Even though she went for daily radiation and had major surgery, she rarely referred to her actual diagnosis again. It was over. Done. She refused the doctor’s recommendation for chemotherapy. We didn’t mention The Big C or her diagnosis. For at least five years, the bad was gone through the language of silence.

It is no wonder, then, that at UCLA, I majored in linguistics—the study of languages. I found languages to be fascinating, in all their components: the meanings of words strung together to make brilliant sentences and the meanings behind the meanings. And, again, it is not surprising that I have spent my life’s work helping others string together their own words into prose. I provide students with a quote to start their class so that they can read between the lines, searching within themselves for their own strong meanings.

The following quote from Nancy Thayer reflects just this very power, and my belief that I have created a meaningful life for myself and for my students, one draft at a time: “It is never too late in fiction or in life to revise.”

More from Barbara A Jaffe Ed.D.
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