Recently Canada Post honoured author, Margaret Atwood, with a  stamp.

In her speech acknowledging the honour, she made many jokes about being “not dead yet,” as most honourees in this category are deceased. She explained that her eyes are closed because she’s thinking, and generally thanked the post office while maintaining a modest (very Canadian) demeanour. Her audience was delighted.

The imprint shows a photograph of Ms Atwood, superimposed on the text, “A word after a word after a word after a word is power.” How appropriate that the author of “The Handmaid’s Tale” pays homage to the power of words.

For any who doubt the power of words, history is littered with examples of the grand and the eloquent.

Churchill’s oratory is considered a major weapon in the war against Nazi Germany. His stirring speech promising “blood, sweat and tears” to a citizenry suffering through the Blitz, lifted morale and persuaded a tired, bombed-out citizenry to “carry on.” After Dunkirk, he vowed ” we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,”  and a beaten and demoralized army put itself  together and prepared for D-Day and eventual victory.

Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” inspired the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

J. F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your nation can do for you” speech fired a generation to enrol in the Peace Corps.

From the Psalms to Justin Beiber, humanity has revealed its soul and its greatest longings through words and music

There is a flip side to the power of words too. Hitler used his mezmerizing oratory to stir up hatred and cause the death of millions and millions of people.

Shakespeare could not have imagined modern communications when he gave these words to Marc Anthony in Julius Caesar.

 The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.”

This destructive power of words is manifestly evident in  the age of social media, where on-line trolls use the power of words to destroy lives and drive children to suicide.

Theodore Roosevelt said:

In Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck Rake, the man who could look no way but downward, with the muck rake in his hand; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor. 

Although Bunyan and later Teddy Roosevelt were condemning the Man with the Muck Rake, it speaks to the power of words that in the 21st century, over 325 years after Pilgrim’s Progress was published, the term muckraker is still in common usage.

All of the above is a long-winded way of saying congratulations to Margaret Atwood, and to Canada Post for recognizing her genius. It is also a reminder to writers and readers alike that words matter. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” may offer comfort to a crying child, but it is not true. Sticks and stones and tanks and bombs can break bones and bodies, but words change minds. They break hearts or bring joy. They are the manifestation of ideas, the essence of thought. Words are powerful and dangerous and beautiful. Be careful how you use them.

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