(S)words, or: Painted Fire


Who do you carry that torch for, my young man, Do you believe in anything? Do you carry it around just to burn things down?

-Brand New


Words are only painted fire; a look is the fire itself.

-Mark Twain


"You haven't a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston," he said almost sadly. "Even when you write it you're still thinking in Oldspeak. I've read some of those pieces that you write in the Times occasionally. They're good enough, but they're translations. In your heart you'd prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don't grasp the beauty of the destruction of words."

-Syme in George Orwell's 1984

What Words Are

I have an extraordinary interest in words, which makes it nigh impossible to enjoy things like news reports, political speeches, song lyrics, small-talk, and the vast majority of church sermons.

A word is the most potent poison known to mankind: it can disintegrate a man from the inside without so much as a mark on the skin to prove it was ever there. A word is the sharpest dagger that a human can wield: capable of backstabbing, dark-alley threatening, and trust evaporating; useful for flashing at oncoming threats and baring before impending fights. A word is the hottest fire to alight the torches of men: it can roast our enemies, warm cold hearts, light up cavernous rhetoric, and signal for help to anyone who will listen.

Yet we toss them around as if they were gumdrops.

Glance up at the top of this post at the quote from Brand New's song "The Archers Bows Have Broken" and notice what Jesse Lacey is saying: he conjures the image of a young man in possession of a fire, a weapon, if you will, capable of both harm and good, and asks "What are you doing with it? Do you just enjoy burning things down?" We don't let people drive who would be dangerous and destructive behind the wheel to those around them, yet we hand ill-suited politicians and celebrities and news agencies and filmmakers and religious leaders microphones and free passes into our homes without so much as bracing ourselves for collision.

We also forget that the same weapons that are used for attack are used to parry - we would rather cry in outrage than raise our well-prepared guard to block. We're an army upset that the other side has weapons rather than an army that trains to use our own.

Fall Out Boy puts it: "I am an arms dealer fitting you with weapons in the form of words." We sing from our childhood: "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." We read that the Word of God is: "sharper than any two-edged sword piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." Aldous Huxley writes in Brave New World: “Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly -- they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.”

They're weapons. And yet we toss them like snakes on Sand Mountain and cry in bitterness when they bite.

Why Words are Dangerous

I mentioned that "Sticks and stones" little ditty above. It has always been a strange little saying to me, because honestly, sticks and stones hurt less and for a far shorter time than words do. Bruises heal, scars fade, broken bones are set again, but one mention of inadequacy haunts a man for a lifetime. One mention of "ugly" outweighs thirty mentions of "beautiful."

A brief lesson in something that interests me:

Take the word "tree." Write it, read it, speak it, think it. T-R-E-E.

We have learned that this arrangement of letters, when positioned next to each other, signifies some object "out there" in the real world. In semiotics-talk, the compilation of letters is called the sign and the object being pointed to the signified. Nothing about the tall, organic structure wrapped with bark, sitting atop a spider's web of roots and topped with slowly changing colored appendages is represented by the sign "tree." The word doesn't look like what we think of trees as looking like. It doesn't sound on our tongues how trees sound in nature. It doesn't smell of tree or taste of tree or feel of tree, yet we still link the two terms together because that is how wonderful brains are.

So words are more than weapons, they are (more innocuously or dangerously, I'm not sure yet) signs. It's not the word that holds any power. In fact, this is the part where I dismantle what I said before: words hold no power.

But they are capable of such destruction because of what they are. Signs are intensely more dangerous because they point to something inside of us that begs recognition in order to be effective. You can block physical pain, so I hear, after years of practice or repeated intense encounters with it. But the very act of comprehending words is enough of a crack in the toughest armor to let the flood in. They bridge physical stuff (sound waves, vibrating lips, facial expressions) and spiritual stuff (what keeps you awake at night in cold sweats counting revolutions of ceiling fans contrasted against an off-white stucco ceiling wondering exactly what they meant by "thunderously incompetent").

To reference the second quote above: It is not the word fire which burns, it is the thing that the word "fire" points to. But the word, after a good long time burning your hand in flames, would surely bring up some painful memories.

**Ignore this paragraph if you feel it is too off topic. I won't make it long. I think that it is a fun thing anyway (and I must work some understanding of God into all of this. That's the reason I write these blamed things anyway.) We humans are nothing but words, I think. Sure, we can punch one another and go to war and whatnot, which are quite physical acts, but I believe that we are not but signs to a higher signified. It's in the very beginning of the Bible - even the people who read it and get bored with it get to this part: "Let us make man in our image." Remember it? That word "image" is more appropriately "icon," which is nothing but a pointer. A sign. We were created with some kind of significance that points to the thing being signified. We were created to be little word-vessels that, when other vessels see us walking about and interacting with one another, they say, "God." But I won't ramble about this. Feel free to ask and I'd love to explain my thoughts on it :)

Why I Will Endorse Them Anyway

This is easy: I will endorse words because words are some of the most beautiful things we possess, and that is not just the English nerd in me speaking. Words accomplish more than we would ever give them credit for because a great number of people who are quite skilled at using them are also colossal, raging imbeciles and give things like "rhetoric" and "persuasion" dirty connotations. Words communicate to the soul, they pass instruction, they call attention to things not in the room and which have never before been seen: "It's around the corner about two feet down underneath a green box." or "The picture I'm talking about is the one where she is in the flannel shirt in her back yard and she leans towards whoever was taking the picture with this smile that fills you from the inside and makes you want to miss somebody."

Words are powerful little things not because of what they are, but because of what they represent. They can tear down governments and stop wars before they happen and tell somebody that they are loved. They connect the stuff of the brain and the soul with the stuff of the world, making it so that when I have a thought, I can share it with you. They can let you see me, and not just how I look, but who I am.

Of course, they can trick you too, or be as empty and vapid as the wind. You've heard it: "actions speak louder than words," and apparently a picture is worth a thousand of them. I wrote a short poem about them not too long ago which tries to address this - because things like words can't be captured simply with prose about them. They're half spirit anyway.

Syme and the champions of Newspeak (The Ministry's brutal shorthand) in 1984 lambast what they call "Oldspeak," which is simply English as you're reading it now, with its "vagueness and shades of meaning." It encourages thoughtcrime (crimes against the government that are thought, not acted upon) because they are precisely what enable it, and by ridding the language of all traces of words related to thoughtcrime, it could be eliminated altogether. Think of it: harboring something so deep-seeded and crucial to let out but not having the language to do so.

Silencing is the highest form of imprisonment, for it muzzles the soul; verbal is the hardest abuse to forget, for our spirit heals slower than our body.* Take away my liberty, that's one thing - but take away my voice and I am suffocated.

Verse yourself with the attributes and capabilities of words and suddenly slogging through political drivel and consumer culture is cake. The vast majority of preaching nowadays is exposed. Literature comes alive and bad literature becomes appalling. Interactions become more meaningful because you begin to abhor small-talk and flippant remarks and useless brandishings of what can be beautiful things now made profane.

Develop your voice or you waste it and you disrespect people who have sacrificed to give it to you. Build one another up, because the same tools that rip apart walls can construct sanctuaries. If you can, speak for the voiceless, stick up for the innocents imprisoned, and combat slavery wherever you find it, even if all you know how to do is yell loud enough to gather a crowd.

Share your heart with fire and it will be heard.



*I am not saying these things as an expert in any way on abuse or imprisonment or the atrocities of human against human unnecessary violence. I am drawing only from what I have been told and from my own experience, which is, thank God, extraordinarily limited. Being shoved in lockers and pygmy traps and eating pre-licked french fries and being called "freak" and other silly hardships hardly compare with the scope of what people have put other people through. My point is not that you forget the violence, it's the insistence that you are worthless that's harder to shake than it is for the skin to heal.

Hamilton Barber

The subject of this page is an introverted writer/musician/lunatic from Chattanooga, TN who dabbles in lexical dexterity, unorthodox thoughts on prosperity, and being overwhelmingly undeserving of the privilege of waking up every day. He hopes that everybody who reads these words takes them to heart and leaps higher than he ever could. He reads, thinks, and speaks too much; he listens, works, and loves too little; and he says “I” entirely too often. The words on these pages are not his: they are the words that were given to him.