Fighting for each phrase

Human beings woke up fairly quickly to the idea that written language has power. That unlike spoken words, the written sign with articulate attendant meaning has a quality that can change things, shifting the balance of power, bringing in new players and taking others out.

The ancient Roman practice of ‘damnatio memoriae’, was less an injunction to recall, in spoken words, the deeds of a cancelled emperor and more a requirement, signed off at the highest elite and political level, to use written words to call up the name and deeds of the repudiated ex-leader.

The sense that the written word has the power to create as well as destroy runs through Western history. It was language, and language-related issues, long before war and violence, that drove the churches of the East and West apart into locked mutual aversion.

The fight for the right expression, for the right word to name, describe and designate is not over. It wasn’t over in the 11th century, when adding to or subtracting from a statement of belief was considered the shortest way to Hell. It wasn’t over in the 16th century, when refusing the write the right words would be considered treason punishable by death. It isn’t over in the 21st century, when it might have never been easier to write someone off on the evidence of a few words.

Words may have the power, but they are not power. They are tools, just like any other, perhaps just as strong, but certainly more elusive.

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