WORDS AND THEIR POWER

by
Ruth Phelps

R

The Rosicrucian Order
AMORC
San Jose, California

MJ-160

285

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MJ-160

Rosicrucian Order - AMORC
ANALYTICAL DISCUSSIONS
(Supplementary Lecture)
WORDS AND THEIR POWER
by Ruth Phelps

The power of words consists primarily in the fact that they are signs
or symbols used to express or convey to another individual the ideas
and emotions of the speaker. Their power is in the meaning. We use
words in science, art, music, philosophy, religion. Words and their
meanings are problems in advertising, politics, business, and backfence conversation. Because language consists of symbols and signs,
many of the principles of semantics apply also to symbolism. Lan­
guage involves our ideas, emotions, and behavior; hence, a study of
semantics reveals certain psychological principles.
Semantics is the study of the meanings of words and language. It is
the business of each to learn to understand what we mean by the words
we use and what other people mean. This is the twofold purpose of
this discourse: first to understand what we mean and why we say what
we do, and second to understand what other people mean by what they say,
and why they say it. Semantics is a study that applies to all facets
of life, and one that can be carried on for a lifetime. The power of
words is in their meaning, and semantics is a study of the principles
behind the meaning. It will show us that the meaning is the definition
given in the dictionary plus our own emotions and ideas.
We could give many examples of problems involving semantics. In the
last several years many nations have become independent politically.
The attitude of the government of the United States toward these strug­
gles for independence may be expressed by any one of, say, three words,
rebellion, revolution, or independence. If in a certain case, we use
the word rebellion instead of independence, our official attitude would
be different. More important, perhaps, the attitude of the people of
the United States, as well as other countries, would be influenced by
the choice of words.
A newspaper account of an accident is often derived from police reports
which are in turn based on eyewitness reports. The newspaper report is
not first hand, and each step of the process may omit details and add
to or change the resulting report because people see things differently
and they say them differently.
Advertisements in any medium use words which might be called "signal
words" to induce the listener to buy a product. The words used are im­
portant, but so are the pictures, music, and associations, to say nothing
of the attitudes of the person hearing and watching, or reading.
Johnny, age two, learns his language from his family by the imitation
method. Along with words, he learns the meanings and values. He learns
what is right and what is wrong, what is true, what God is, what red is.

Words and Their Power
It may take a while to sort out the different meanings of red in: He's
red with anger; he's a red; the red cover on the book; and the book they
read. Johnny and Jane both have their language colored by the family,
but each is an individual adding ideas and emotions to those generally
accepted by the family.
Humans are symbolizing animals. They are constantly substituting one
thing for another in order to identify, represent, explain, or express
another. One way we do this is by spoken or written words. Language
arises from two needs and functions. First, people are gregarious, so­
ciable, and need each other. Each of us has to convey our ideas and emo­
tions to others with whom we associate. These ideas and emotions include
everything from the simplest, most basic physical needs and activities to
the height of mystical experience. Second, as a symbolizing creature,
each person uses this symbolizing function to formulate his awareness of
self and not-self. We make order out of perceptions and experiences part­
ly by putting them into words which are often unspoken.
We may say then that the power of words consists in their meaning, but
that their function is twofold. Words help to make order and enable the
individual to formulate order out of the chaos of impressions he receives.
Words are used in turn to express to others what we think, feel, and do.
The language or dialect of a group is created by the group; that of one
group differs from that of another. Within a group the language must, in
the main, be mutually agreed upon, or it would not be understandable. If
an individual uses words which no one else understands, he might as well
save his breath.
The group creates the nature and form of the language and imposes it on
the members of the group. An individual may have some influence in chang­
ing the language, in adding new expressions, for example, but to a greater
extent, each person's thoughts and feelings will be molded by the language
of the group and is an expression of thought and emotions and attitudes of
the group. Words express our scientific, religious, philosophic concepts,
even our perceptions, but these in turn are affected by language and its
meaning. People make the language, but the language affects the thinking
and behavior of groups and individuals.
This applies not only to racial and national groups, but to smaller ones
within larger groups, to geographical, political, economic, vocational,
and other groups. Peace and understanding in this complex world depend
partly on the ability to recognize and use the principles underlying dif­
ferences and modes of expression.
The influence of words consists to some extent in the use of such psycho­
logical and mystical principles as association, suggestion, correspond­
ence, concentration, and visualization. The ideas and emotions which one
associates with such common words as love, virtue, liberal, house, and
mysticism make them mean something different to me than they would to
you. Mysticism in the sense of belief in direct knowledge of God or the
Universal Mind and union with this Mind, and mysticism in the sense of

Words and Their Power
unscientific or unintelligible thought— as it is sometimes used— are
quite different. If we associate fuzzy thinking with mysticism, it
means one thing; if we associate mystical union and basic mystical
principles with it, that means something else.
When we say, "The tree is beautiful" or "It is a cold day" what we really mean is "I feel the tree is beautiful" or "I am cold today." We are
projecting our own thoughts and feelings to the world outside ourselves,
to the tree or the weather. If Mr. A is angry with Mr. X and does not
want to admit it, he may say that Mr. X is angry at him and project his
own emotion to Mr. X. Part of understanding ourselves and others is
understanding and using the principles behind such expressions.
The word and its meaning are related through association, suggestion, or
correspondence. We associate the color red with things that are force­
ful, heat producing, such as fire, anger, and danger. We speak of redhot news; we make danger signs of red. We associate opposites such as
hate and love, good and evil. We call certain buildings houses because
we associate certain common characteristics of these particular build­
ings. Then we synthesize these associated things in our minds and create
the classification of house. We say the cosmos is an organism or maybe
a mechanism because the revolving planets remind us of an organism or
mechanism; we associate the two. However, if we carry the analogy too
far, we may have misconceptions.
We may associate things which happen at the same time, or which are con­
nected with the same place. Association is within the mind and selfpropelling; that is, association breeds more association. It goes on
more or less automatically and unconsciously unless we make an effort to
understand it.
Suggestion is giving an idea or emotion to or accepting it from another
person or group. It is the basis of many social, political practices and
behavior. Often the suggestion is meant to be accepted uncritically and
automatically. When a teacher explains something to a class, this may be
a suggestion; the class learns the lesson. Autosuggestion involves one
person who is both suggesting and receiving, and any of us may do this
without realizing it. Often the suggestion is in the form of words
whether conscious or not. The more we are aware of this, the less we are
slaves to our own and others' ideas, emotions, and behavior.
Correspondence is both a function in itself and the basis of functions
such as association. An object may be thought to correspond to another
because of its shape or its function. A series may seem to correspond to
another series. The inner, mental, or spiritual self may be said to cor­
respond to the physical or outer self. The particles of matter are said
to correspond to the cosmos.
We concentrate on what we think and do and consequently on the words used
to express ideas, emotions, and behavior. An athlete concentrating on
what he is doing performs better than one who does not. The reader of a
book or an advertisement concentrating on it may make it more effective
or less, depending partly whether he understands the words and accepts

them and on whether he is aware of this or not. Concentration and visu­
alizing what we want may help to bring it about, but if we unconsciously
visualize what we fear, it may help to bring that about too. Often we put
into words those ideas or things we want or do not want without realizing
we are doing this. If we did know and analyze the words, we would better
understand our thinking and behavior and that of others. None of these
functions are good or bad in themselves; it is our use of them or misuse
which are that.
We can learn to understand ourselves and others by analyzing and con­
sciously understanding our ideas and behavior as they are expressed in words.
Language is a tool and is only as useful as we make it. When we begin to
take our attitudes and beliefs for granted, then we most need to analyze
them, ourselves, and our language. When we catch ourselves using the same
words and phrases to express concepts, emotions, perceptions, and be­
havior, then too we need to analyze them, our words, and ourselves.
Automatic, habitual verbal responses may indicate that we are not question­
ing our attitudes and language, that we are not thinking for ourselves but
are responding in well and long conditioned ways based on experiences and
attitudes we have not reconsidered and analyzed. All of us are guilty of
accepting conditioned thinking and behavior, including verbal responses.
It is a rare individual who is capable of deliberately and objectively
rooting out accepted beliefs, taking a good look at them and reconstruct­
ing attitudes and responses from the foundations up. If we are going to
live in the world we want and develop psychologically and mystically, we
must be painfully and over a long time aware of and reconstruct our per­
cepts, ideas, emotions, and our verbal expressions and responses. In
order to reconstruct, we must know what we are now, what we want, what we
have accepted uncritically, what we have grown up with, and that we have
put these in verbal form, and then use words to help in the reconstruc­
tion .
We must, of course, have an idea of what we want to be, put it in objec­
tive form including words, and we should then use visualization and con­
centration to put the idea in a creative form. We may by these methods
become more what we would like to be, and we can become more tolerant and
understanding of others. One of the important means in accomplishing
understanding and development is the semantics of language, the study of
meaning.
Language may be used in many ways. When a scientist reports on experi­
ments in atomic physics or an astronomical discovery, he intends primarily
to inform his colleagues, students, or the public. Whether the result
is a technical report or a popular explanation, the desire is to tell
others what is known, to increase their knowledge. In this scientific
age, we tend to think that the scientific attitude is not only the best
but also completely objective. The scientist has emotions about his work
and a desire to inform others. These may influence the experiments, but
much more they affect his report on them. This is true even if it is a
strictly scientific report; it is more true of popularized works in
scientific fields. In either case, the work itself is motivated by

emotions to some extent, and the resulting verbal report or book will
have emotional content which may be understood by being aware of the
semantics involved.
On the other hand, when an author writes a story or poem, he intends
primarily to affect others. His work will consequently have more emo­
tional content and appeal than that of the scientist. The tendency to
equate objectivity and empirical information with science, and subjec­
tivity and emotional appeal with novelists, for example, is only partly
true. The novel, poem, or play may be intended to inform as well to
have an emotional appeal.
The lawyer pleading a case or the politician running for office may want
the jury or the public, as the case may be, to think his statements are
objective and factual. Obviously they are both influenced by their de­
sires, and this will show in the words and language used.
When mother tells Jane or Johnny that what he or she is putting in the
stomach will not be good for the child, she intends to influence behavior.
She is informing, but as she does so, the language and what it means to
the child will largely determine how effective her instructions are.
We have said that language consists of signs and symbols. We may extend
this and say that language is a system of signs and symbols used by human
beings to communicate with each other or by one individual to formulate
his ideas to himself. Language consists first of all in sounds and sec­
ondarily in written letters or signs. A word, according to the diction­
ary, is the smallest unit of speech that has meaning when used by itself.
Since language consists of signs and symbols, it is well that we know
what these are. A symbol is something that is used to represent something
else. The circle, for instance, represents that which is without begin­
ning or end. It may symbolize the sun. A book is sometimes used to sym­
bolize knowledge. A sign is a symbol used to identify something. It may
be words identifying a store, or a sign identifying a town. A signal is
a sign used to imply or induce a reaction on the part of the perceiver.
A red light at a railroad track tells the motorist he should stop. A sym­
bol represents, a sign identifies, and a signal implies a reaction. A
word can be used in any of these three ways, depending on the intention
and context. The word red may symbolize heat or anger; it may be a sign
identifying a color; in a stop sign at a street crossing it is a signal
to stop.
Words change in meaning in several ways. A word used as a sign may be­
come a symbol or vice versa because of a need for new expressions. The
meaning may change because an individual or group changes in attitudes or
behavior. It may change simply for the sake of doing something new. In
any case, such changes in words and their meaning and use indicate changes
in people and their interrelationship. Some words used to identify ethnic
groups are meant to be signals to arouse the derogatory attitude of the
speaker. In reality they give away the narrow attitudes of their users,
and to unprejudiced people they portray the narrow views of those using
them. They characterize the speaker rather than the group spoken about.
We need the sympathy and understanding to become conscious of such expresssions and eliminate them from our own vocabulary and take them for what

they are when others use them. Words then become instruments of
empathy and understanding simply by not using them or by substituting
others in their places.
The power of words is in their meaning, but the meaning consists of our
thoughts and emotions. The word by itself, without the thoughts and
emotions behind it, is nothing. The words are the expression of what we
are, what we think and feel. The language we use tells others whether
we are thoughtful, sensitive, coarse, brutal, frivolous, selfless. It
expresses our interests, our upbringing, and our characteristics unless
we have changed--consciously or unconsciously— ourselves and our language,
The individual has it in his power to increase his understanding of him­
self and others, and to change his own attitudes and behavior. Under­
standing semantics, the meaning of words, is one way to do this.
Suggested Reading:
Bois, J. Samuel
Hayakawa, S .I.
Hayakawa, S .I., ed.
Johnson, Wendell
Johnson, Wendell
Lee, Irving J.
Morris, Charles
Sondel, Bess
Sondel, Bess
Terwilliger, Robert F.

Explorations in Awareness. Harper, 1957.
Language in Thought and Action, second edi­
tion. Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964.
Paperbound.
Harper, 1954.
Peojpie in '
Harper, 1946.
Ver]bal Man
The Enchantment of Words. Collier,
1965.
Language
iguage Habits in Human Affairs. Harper,
1941.
Signs, Language and Behavior. Prentice-Hall,
1946.
The Humanity of Words. World, 1958.
Power-steering with Words. Follett, 1964.
Meaning and Mind: A Study in the Psychology of
Language. Oxford UniveriTty, 1968.
Paperbound