How men first learnt to invent words, is unknown; in other words, the origin of language is a mystery. All we really know is that men, unlike animals, somehow invented certain sounds to express thoughts and feelings, actions and things.
So that they could communicate them to each other; and that, later, they agreed upon certain signs, called letters, which could be combined to represent those sounds, and which could be written down. These sounds, whether spoken, or written in letters, we call words.
A word, then, is simply a sound, or the written sign of a sound, which men of any particular nation have agreed shall mean a certain thing, action, feeling or thought. How can such mere signs have any power?
Well, of course, it is not the sign itself that has power, but the thing it stands for. A foreign word which has no meaning for us, can have no power over us; but the meaning of many words of our language have the power to rouse in us the passions of fear, love, hate, anger, desire, shame, joy and sorrow.
For example, the word “Fire!” shouted in a crowded theatre, will put the whole audience into a panic; the word “home” will bring tears to the eyes of an exile; the word “freedom” will rouse a subjected people to revolution; the word “death” will chill the bravest heart.
To call a man a “coward” will make him blush for shame, or rouse him to a blaze of indignant anger; to tell him a loved one is “dead”, will fill him with sorrow; to tell a poor man he is “rich”, will fill him with joy. And there are words for which men have died, such as “fatherland”, “king”, and “faith”.
The power of words, then, lies in their associations the things they bring up before our minds. Words become filled with meaning for us by experience; and the longer we live, the more certain words recall to us the glad and sad events of our past; and the more we read and learn, the more the number of words that mean something to us increases.
Great writers are those who not only have great thoughts but who express these thoughts in words which appeal powerfully to our minds and emotions.
This charming and telling use of words is what we call literary style. Above all, the real poet is a master of words. He can convey his meaning in words which sing like music, and which by their position and association can move men to tears.
Words are alive. As time passes they are born, grow to full maturity, and die. And they change morally. Some that began as common words become great and noble in meaning, like “religion”, that originally meant a “bond”.
And some innocent words become degraded; for example, a “villain” originally meant simply a farmer, and “knave” meant simply a boy-servant. “Damn” meant at first simply to condemn.
And words, like coins, get worn and rubbed with use, till they lose their true meaning and become weak and ineffective; for example, “nice” meant originally dainty, delicate, fine, while now it means almost anything. We should therefore choose our words carefully and use them accurately, or they will make our speech silly and vulgar.
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