John Alan Turner

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach, Facilitator

When Words Become Phrases

I shouldn’t be flippant about words – especially in light of what I’m about to say. Words have power. That’s sort of stating the obvious.

Words strung together form phrases. Phrases form sentences. Sentences form paragraphs, and entire civilizations are changed forever by the force of words strung together.

We consider these truths to be self-evident….

I have a dream….

For better, for worse; in sickness and in health….

Words have power to change, to stir, to incite, to heal. Often, in ideological battles, the side with the best words wins.

Take, for example, the rhetoric in the last few decades of the “Religious Right.” They intentionally chose the phrase “family values” because opposing them might make you appear to be in opposition to families. And who wants to come out against families?

I grew up in a church that often referred to itself (and a very select few others like itself) as “The Lord’s Church.” What was being said? That the other churches did not really belong to “The Lord.” We were able to say it without coming right out and saying it – because we found a phrase that was powerful.

(Come to think of it, though, that kind of put us in a bind. If there was The Lord’s Church as opposed to all the other non-Lord’s Churches, what did we mean when we said, “The Lord’s Day?”)

In response to the Religious Right’s tactics, the Secular Left (for lack of a better term) countered with a phrase that was easy to fit on a bumper sticker. You’ve probably seen it: “Hate Is Not A Family Value.”

What were they saying? Were they really saying that people who espouse Family Values are actually hatemongers? If you even try to defend yourself, you’re also tacitly admitting guilt. That’s downright sneaky, isn’t it?

Many of us use words in this manner more often than we care to admit. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard people ask, “Would you rather be right or happy?”

Are you saying I can’t be both?

This rhetorical strategy is being used lately in the debates over the nature of truth. For example, I told you a few days ago: “I am biased in favor of truth and away from falsehood.” Do I mean by that that anyone who disagrees with me prefers falsehood to truth?

No, of course not. And yet…

I do know that there are people who prefer falsehood to truth if truth is going to require them to make a change they don’t want to make.

My point is this: Our words matter because our words have power. If words like “truth” and “family” and “hate” have this much power, what about phrases? We would be wise to avoid underestimating the power of a finely-worded slogan.