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A healing nudge

January 09, 2003

SOUL FOOD

"Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you can get the right

ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little."

-- Playwright Tom Stoppard wrote, and a character in his play "The

Real Thing" said.

Someone sent me the thought with this column in mind. Or so it

seemed. The e-mail was sent to the address for this column. It

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arrived unsigned, with no further comment. It could, I suppose, have

been spam mail.

In any case, it got me thinking. It got me thinking about words

and, if they are sacred, what it means to respect them. It got me

thinking about nudging the world and what all these things mean to

this column.

The idea that words are sacred, to be used with care, seems as old

as time, and for good reason: Words are powerful. The familiar

schoolyard rhyme, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can

never hurt me," belies the truth.

Ideas, laws, men and women, all -- justly and unjustly -- have

been taken down by words. The right words in the right order. For

reasons right or wrong.

Among the Ten Commandments is the law: "You shall not bear false

witness against your neighbor." (Deuteronomy 5:20)

And Jesus preached, "Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man;

but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man." (Matthew 15:11)

"On the day of judgment men will render account for every careless

word they utter. By your words you will be justified, and by your

words you will be condemned." (Matthew 12:36, 37)

One proverb says, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh

word stirs up anger." (Proverbs 15:1) We can ruin ourselves. We can

devastate each other with words. Or with words, we can comfort and

encourage, instruct and defend.

Isaiah the prophet wrote of the power "to sustain with a word, him

that is weary." (Isaiah 50:4) The right words. At the right time.

Last November, I attended a conference in Florida where the topic

was ethics and excellence in column writing. For three days, we

talked about this business of words and our responsibility as

columnists to ourselves, to each other and above all, to you, the

reader, when we use them.

Journalist Keith Woods, a member of the ethics faculty at The

Poynter Institute, gave us two lists.

The excellent journalist, he told us, "stresses accuracy, strives

for precision, holds the powerful accountable, gives voice to the

voiceless, tells as much truth as possible, remains independent of

undue influence, doesn't hurt unnecessarily, informs, educates,

provokes thought, evokes emotion, entertains."

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