The Weight of Words

In “The Meanings of a Word,” Gloria Naylor writes that “words are innocuous” and that it’s how we understand and use them that give them “true power.” In other words, the meanings we assign to words give them their weight. Simply looking at a word, we see a senseless combination of letters–some short and some long. The meanings of these words, generally or personally, make their bearing on us either light or heavy. To be sure, it’s not always the length of a word that gives it its weight. Compare supercalifragilisticexpialidocious with war.

Okay, so the first one isn’t an actual word, but it is recognizable and has a readily understood sense. If we wanted to use it, we would know how to. And war, with its three letters and tiny “foot print” on the page, stands in our mouths with the weight of all “the sands of the sea” (Old Testament). What words mean, how we understand them, how we use them, and our personal experiences with them give words their weight–no matter their size.

Poet Julia Darling writes about the weight of words in her poem “Too Heavy.” The poem describes her experience receiving and carrying around the words that articulate her illness (breast cancer). She is “bent with the weight” of words like palliative, recurrent, and biopsy. For Darling, these aren’t just words–combinations of letters voiced and then gone. No, they’re a palpable, ever-present threat. They “tick like bombs.”

But she has her light words too–words that survive the heavy ones to fill her mouth and days with  sweetness: orange, June, monkey, lollypop. These light words, with their jaunty and juicy sounds, are her joy and her strength. Each diagnostically is debilitated with lip.

We all have our heavy words–the words that weigh us down and burden us with sadness, uncertainty, and fear. Some of my heavy words are hypothyroidism, fatigue, ache, and tenure. But we also, like Darling, have our light words. Maybe we share some of these, like bubbles, breeze, gladiola, and laughter. We should give these light words their due and not let them be crushed under the weight of the heavy ones. Our light words might seem trivial, but what they represent is not. Let’s not underestimate the happiness those light words give us when we say them and “taste” them in our mouths. The experiences the light words embody and bring to our lives can be quite healing, so we should give them the prominent place in our narratives that they deserve.

Let’s begin. . .
  • Make a list of your “heavy words.” Then, if you wish to, scratch them out or tear out the page, ball it up and throw it away.
  • Now, make a list of your “light” words. Consider hanging up this list in a prominent place or carrying it around with you. You can get creative and write each one in colorful ink on a sticky note or index card and hang them up in places meaningful for each word.
  • In your journal, reflect on the various ways in which these words bring lightness to your life.
  • When you are unable to participate in the experiences these words embody, simply say them aloud when you need to feel lightness in your life.

What are the words on your heavy and light lists?
Please share them in the comments section.

2 thoughts on “The Weight of Words

  1. Hi Melissa,

    I love reading your work. Your style of writing is like your personality. It’s gentile, sweet, nurturing, caring, and full of so much love. I have so many light and heavy words but my favorite “light” words are: leaves, maple, because I love trees and of course the smell of maple syrup. Kiss, joy, laughter, trails, and most any word related to outdoors and nature. Thank you for all you are doing in your journey to help others with your beautiful gift of writing and teaching.

    1. Thank you so much for your sweet, sweet comment and for sharing your favorite light words. Any words that have to do with the peace and beauty of nature are especially healing–like nature herself! I appreciate your reading my post and your supportive and encouraging thoughts.

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