The Power of Powerful Words

            Sunday after Sunday I sit in my pew and listen, sometimes distantly, as the priest pronounces great truths and wisdom from the pulpit.  Nobody else speaks; nobody questions what is said; nobody challenges the Word.  According to O’Donnell (1999), my weekend rituals, as well as my sense of morality, are governed by the chance occurrence that early Christians transcribed their beliefs to avoid persecution.  The power of Words, whether they be written or spoken, is undeniable.  Words have the ability to build ideas and peoples up, or break them down and scatter them about.  Postman (1992), in discussing Thamus’ error of omission, states that “writing is not a neutral technology whose good or harm depends on the uses made of it.”  In reality, writing is the one true technology that has changed everything for humans: how we learn, how we remember, how we create, how we communicate, how we love and how we hate.  Words, simple words, have changed everything.

            As Ong (1982) writes, “sound cannot be sounding without the use of power.”  Everyone stops to listen to the person speaking; crowds are fearful of interrupting the powerful leader, sharing insight with the humble masses.  Of course, as Stan Lee (1962) put it so simply “With great power comes great responsibility.”  Those who command the Words on which the masses hang their hopes must be careful and vigilant to use their authority for positive gains, and not for selfish concerns.  As Postman (1992) points out, “the benefits and deficits of a new technology are not distributed equally.”  There will always be those in the inner circle, charged with distributing the Words to those on the outside.  The imbalance in power, wherein so much is given to so few, necessitates that those in control should be carefully and thoughtfully selected to ensure that they are indeed worthy of the role.  Salespeople, tour-guides, teachers, judges, priests, political leaders and countless other professions and occupations all carry the same weight and responsibility of doing what it morally and socially correct with the information at their disposal and authoritarian figure they hold in their respective arenas.

In the 2010 film The Book of Eli, Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman, is relentless in his pursuit of a book.  Set against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the most invaluable tool, the most destructive and coercive weapon is a book: a Bible.  Realizing that, in a world wherein perhaps hope is the most valuable commodity, Carnegie states that “People will do whatever I tell them, if the words are from the Book.  It’s happened before, it’ll happen again.”  Powerful Words have the potential to uplift, motivate, even save those who have nothing else.  If those who claim to represent the Words are themselves untrustworthy, they may of course use the Words for their own repellant needs and wants.

If, as McLuhan (1964) coined that “the medium is the message, Thamus, as Postman (1992) explains, is correct in being “concerned not with what people will write; he is concerned that people will write.” (p.7) In this instance, I’m not sure I can agree.  While a bruise caused by a stone or stick will heal in time, Words, especially when written, can be much more damaging and hurtful.  As Ong discusses, spoken words exist for only a few seconds before they disappear out of existence.  Written words however, are committed to the page, existing in a physical form, to be preserved and saved for future generations.  While I do not refute that it’s important that we, as a literate society, are able to write, it is also equally important what is being written.  An elementary school students can get over being called a name much more quickly than a high school student being written about on a taunting website.  It is important, as an elementary school teacher that my students understand immediately the power of the Words they choose to use.  Our classroom project of creating Student Blogs will help to show the impact their Words can have on others as well as their permanence effect as their work will be available for, potentially, the entire planet to read.

As Ong (1982) so eloquently phrases, “writing was and is the most momentous of all human technological inventions.” (p. 84).  There is an interesting duality that exists with Words.  Spoken aloud, Words are much more easily questioned.  Written down, Words are regarded as unblemished truth and wisdom.  They are permanent, important, and meaningful.  People are very slow and wary to question what they read, but will quickly and easily dismiss conversations as gossip or hearsay.  When Words are printed on a medium, they become undeniable, permanent, and powerful.  They transcend thought and emotion to the realm of physical creation.



Whitta, G. (Writter), & Hughes Brothers (Directors).  (2010).  The Book of Eli [Motion Picture].  United States, Warner Bros. Pictures Distribution

O’Donnell, J. & Engell, J. (1999).  From Paper to Papyrus.  Cambridge Forum

Postman, N. (1992.)  Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology.  New York: Vintage Books.

Ong. Walter. (1982.)  Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word.  London: Methuen.

McLuhan, M. (1964).  Understanding Media: The extensions of man.  McGraw-Hill

Lee. S. (1962).  Amazing Fantasy 1(15) Marvel Comics.

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4 Responses to The Power of Powerful Words

  1. smyers says:

    I had to read your commentary three times. There was so much to think about. The power of words. The power of written word vs. spoken. The authority that the written word seems to command over the spoken. The longevity of the written word. One point that resonates is the idea of power, and the idea that those who possess the power (usually as a result of a higher economic status), are able to transfer spoken word to print.
    I’ve just returned home from an exhibit at the Rare Books Library at UBC where there were two exhibits pertaining to this. One, examined the Missionary Printing Press and colonialism in BC, the Indigenous/Christian encounter as a result of the printed word. Another exhibit, showed many of the printed, “authoritative” documents produced by the CPR and our government with respect to Chinese immigrant workers.
    As you said, “Those who command the Words on which the masses hang their hopes must be careful and vigilant to use their authority for positive gains, and not for selfish concerns.” So true. Those written words caused great harm in the early 1900’s and are still painful to read today. The effects of the written word are powerful and long lasting.

    • Eric Gearey says:

      Wow. Three times? Really? Shucks. Thanks. I had a hard time with this assignment – too much material to draw from – hard to nail any one concept down at the expense of the others. I’ve still got a few hundred words bouncing around in my head that I know I forgot to put into this one…


      – Eric.

  2. kstooshnov says:

    Great commentary, Eric,

    Anyone who can mash-up Christianity, Spiderman and McLuhan deserves a holler: “word” indeed! The start of your post recalls the Carolingians, the priests who spent the entire sermon speaking Latin to the stained-glass window behind the pulpit, rather than to the congregation out front. It was meant to show the direct connection to God, as the Word radiates out towards the sinners, who don’t even get eye contact from their priest. No way to challenge authority with this set-up!

    And your mention of the role the Book plays in the movie Book of Eli as a dangerous technology brings to mind another game-changing commodity in another post-apocalyptic movie, Kevin Costner’s titular role as the Postman (1997). Here is world where letter delivery is a threat to the forces of evil, and no doubt this film’s ludicrous plot came out on the cusp of the e-mail revolution: traditional mail services were being threaten by faster (and freer) electronic delivery. It also didn’t help that this movie followed hard on the heel of the infamous epic flop Waterworld (1995). But I’ve always had a soft spot for the later film, perhaps because the Postman-with-no-name quotes so many out-of-context lines from Shakespeare that characters in the film nickname him Shakespeare, proving that even post-apocalyptic Americans haven’t lost their sense of irony.


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