In the Gospel of Saint John, it begins:
In the beginning, there was the Word, and the Word was God.
When I studied scripture (yes, I have studied scripture – both in high school and in college. Go Jesuits!), recall spending a fair amount of time discussing this line. John’s gospel is significantly different than the other three. In it, John emphasizes the divinity of Jesus and, as a consequence, it’s a trifle more abstract in places. It works with certain metaphors the other gospels don’t (as those gospels were more concerned with Jesus as a human being and how he relates to humanity). In the original Ancient Greek, the word we translate as “Word” is logos.
Logos means “word,” but not in the conventional sense (that is lexis). Logos, rather, means something along the lines of “rational basis” or “premise”. In the theological sense, among the ancient Hebrews it indicated “that through which everything was made.” It makes sense, in this context, that Saint John would relate God to logos, as that is literally what God is – the thing through which everything is made. I also think it is profound to think of the metaphor being constructed here, irrespective of your religious beliefs: Word as God.
Neil Postman, the media theorist and cultural critic (and professor of communications and culture at NYU), goes on at some length about the power of words. In his essay “The Word Weavers/The World Makers,” he says:
For whatever we believe in, or don’t believe in, is to a considerable extent a function of how our language addresses the world.
We cannot conceive of things we have no words for. Our words and our language dictates how we interact and understand the world around us and it is very difficult to escape. Even if you learn several languages, our frames of meaning and understanding are still hung upon a framework of words. Now, there is some argument among linguists and biologists and so on regarding how language came about (are we born with it hardwired in or do we learn it/not learn it according to environment), but regardless of that, the simple fact remains that words are the very stuff of creation. What’s more, language is basically just a metaphor – it exists at what Postman says is “at considerable remove from the reality of the world itself.”
Consider any object. Can you see the back of it? Obviously not unless you turn it around, but then, of course, you can’t see the front anymore. Indeed, you cannot ever see all of an object at once without using a series of mirrors, and even then you are only seeing reflections and images of that object’s full self. Nevertheless, if you look at the coffee mug on your desk , you know its shape and its function and its color and, despite no current sensory evidence, you are able to conceive of it without needing to see it. This, Postman insists, is the function words serve. They are metaphors and metaphors, he says, are “organs of perception.”
This brings me, as it always seems to, back to fantasy literature. Magic, as it is commonly portrayed, is almost always somehow verbal in nature: speak the magic words, know the magic incantations, write the magic runes, speak a thing’s True Name, etc.. Tolkien has Middle Earth sung into existence, Le Guin has Ged the Wizard work his magic by speaking the names of things, and Rothfuss’s Kvothe wishes for nothing more than to Speak the Name of the Wind. Historically, this is an ancient belief and custom – we can see it in the Gospel of Saint John just as we can see it in the beliefs of the ancient Hebrew Kabbalists and even the ancient Sumerians who saw names and writing and speech as somehow magical in nature.
What’s interesting about this is that those ancient cultures were right! Words are magical, and not in some mealy-mouthed “inspire you to write and love books” way, either. They are actually magical in the sense that they are what gives the world shape or, rather, enable us to shape the world around us into something understandable. One cannot stare into a void without having a word for void or, rather, if you were to stare into the void (or anything else for that matter) without words, you would have no way to think about the experience outside of dull, animal impressions. Words – how we use them, where we use them, when we use them – have real, actual power over the world around us and the people we meet.
To study words, to understand them, and to wield them is to hold real power. No magic wands required.