say the words


One of the websites I go to for inspiration and sustenance is called Brain Pickings. It is hard to say what it’s about, other than taking a meaningful look at what it means to be truly human. It is curated by Maria Popova, who has quickly moved up on my list of people I would love to have to dinner. I have no idea how she covers so many different kinds of writing and thought–and then finds ways to connect them.

One of the articles I found today had an audio clip of the only recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice from a BBC series called Words Fail Me. One of Woolf’s quotes stood out in particular:

Since the only test of truth is length of life, and since words survive the chops and changes of time longer than any other substance, therefore they are the truest. Buildings fall; even the earth perishes. What was yesterday a cornfield is to-day a bungalow. But words, if properly used, seem able to live for ever.

Words, if properly used . . .

I read the words just before I went into a three-hour corporate meeting where people read their PowerPoint presentations and spoke in acronyms. I don’t think any of those words made it out of the conference room alive. As I have said before, business is out to kill language.

As my morning went on, I read about the way Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, turned Emma Lazarus’ words engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty into a weapon: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,”

I wonder how much money his immigrant ancestors had when they arrived.

On the train ride home from New York, I saw a Facebook post from a college friend who was quoting her niece:

My mom always says, “Say the words.”

Don’t just think someone did a good job or that they made an impact on you. Say it to them.

And I want to encourage you to “Say the words.”

Because someone just “said the words” to me and it made my day a lot better.

Words, if properly used . . .

I have a card in my wallet that someone I didn’t know handed me probably twenty years ago. It doesn’t have a logo on it, or a name, or a phone number. All it says is

I have carried it with me everyday since.

I don’t know if I agree with Woolf that the only test of truth is length of life, but she’s on to something brush with eternity that words–good words–can bring. We watch them do damage almost everyday, I know. Those words will not last because they will kill each other. The words that matter–I love you; I see you; I’m with you; I’m sorry; I can help; let’s eat–live on and on, and help us keep going as well.

If the point of our lives is to be remembered, we won’t be. If the point of our lives is to say the words that matter, they will live on.

Say the words.



  1. Milton, It is so refreshing to find you here again! I love this piece on words. My sister-in-law passed away a week ago, and my brother asked me to edit the obituary he wrote. His voice and his love came powerfully through his writing….his words. She was a big presence and a loving, kind person. She said the words.

Leave a Reply