I’m almost afraid to publish this post.
It feels like passing out a loaded gun to every random stranger that passes by.
In the wrong hands, it could be very dangerous.
But when I think about it, it’s already in the wrong hands. The hands of con artists and cult leaders and politicians. And there is no way to take that power from them except to make everyone else aware of it.
Have you ever thought—I mean really thought—about the power of language? Most of us take it for granted. Not only as a tool to tell our families we love them, or to ask where the bathroom is, or to get anything done at all, but as the only way to transmit complex ideas.
It can take a whole book to explain one concept but assign a name to that concept within the book, and you create a shortcut. Then, if a person has read that book, you can speak one word that conjures up an entire world in their mind.
Quixotic is a simpler example; in Don Quixote, Cervantes (albeit unintentionally) created a word which combined two previously separate ideas: chivalrous and foolish.
Back in 1948, “big brother” meant nothing but “older male sibling.” Then Orwell came out in 1984 and more than 60 years later, we still use the phrase to mean an all-seeing, all-powerful totalitarian government.
Or take the word hnau from C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, used to differentiate between animals and intelligent lifeforms in a universe where humans are not the only intelligent lifeforms. That’s an inadequate explanation because the distinction involves far more than intelligence, or even spirit or soul—you’ll have to read the book to understand it.
Point: words are more than labels. Words are the means of wrapping big ideas in small packages so we can hand them off to each other almost effortlessly. Collapsible concepts. Portable philosophy.
This is possibly one of the most powerful things on earth. Why?
Because you can use it to change the way people think.
Take a simple example. Consider the difference between the synonyms said and claimed. “Bob said he saw Linda at the store,” is neutral. But change it to “Bob claimed he saw Linda at the store,” and suddenly you doubt Bob’s honesty.
Or go the opposite direction and put “Bob confirmed he saw Linda at the store,” and suddenly the statement is fact.
Now apply it to one of our portable philosophies. Say there’s been a break-in at your condominium and the homeowners’ association votes to put up security cameras in all the corridors so they can monitor who goes in and out of every condo. The cameras go up and everyone feels a lot safer. Then somebody graffitis “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” on the wall beneath one camera. Suddenly you’re conjuring up images of emotionless masses in jumpsuits being presided over by a giant television screen that never shuts off. Suddenly you’re worried a little less about security and a little more about privacy. And the next time someone proposes a measure “for added security,” you’re a little slower to agree. You might flat-out oppose it.
Why does it take a whole book to explain?
It only took me six words to define Big Brother at the beginning of this post. So why aren’t we creating collapsible concepts left and right? Because it has to be more than a label. If we’re going to remember it later, it needs to strike a chord with us. It takes the emotional journey of Winston Smith to solidify Big Brother in our minds. That’s the power of stories.
Of course, chances are, you knew what Big Brother meant even if you haven’t read 1984—even if it never “struck a chord” with you. That’s because it struck a chord with so many other people that it became iconic. That’s the power of stories on a world-changing scale.
Obviously, this doesn’t happen every time anybody writes a book.
But it can happen.
Remember that next time you’re reading a dystopian novel, or watching the news, or starting a new paragraph in your WIP. Listen carefully—and write even more carefully.