Selling words

In the business of selling words, sounds were the first to be sold. The ancient sophists sold sounds for orators to persuade, for politicians to collect votes. Before the rulebooks were written, professional wordsmiths had invented the game of speechifying the social and political landscape. It only worked in a democratic, or at least superficially democratic bubble, so ancient Greece won the palm for getting there first.

The sophists took payment for education and rhetorical skills and targeted the wealthiest rungs of society. They provided Europe’s earliest masterclasses.

The selling of words continued after the ancient period and become remonetised as prayers for donors in this life with a view towards investment in the next. Monks prayed for families and individuals who provided for the monastic institutions. Donations and endowments were converted into sounds lifted up to heaven.

By the time Tetzel and his holy salesmen were driving Martin Luther up the (cathedral) wall, sounds and words had been sold in various ways.

We keep selling words for promise, profit or comfort. And we keep buying, creating ever more demand for them.

2 thoughts on “Selling words

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  1. Not sure Ancient Greece got there first, nor within the context of a democratic bubble (a form of democracy which excluded women and slaves as we all know). How about the Ancient Egyptian tradition of Book of the Dead, which goes back to 2000 BC or earlier? And what about cuneiform, which preceded that?


  2. Thank you for the interesting comment, Niki. To speak of ancient Greek democracy is always an exercise in disclaimers, but my argument that the political and social environment created by the Athenian democratic project were the first to encourage a type of persuasion-directed discourse may still have value. I’m not sure, however, what you mean by the Book of the Dead and cuneiform script. They preceded Greek script, of course, but my point was about using competitive speech to sell ideas and establish powerbases.


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