In the book Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, Alice has a conversation with Humpty Dumpty about words.
“When I use a word,” says Humpty Dumpty, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
Alice replies, “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” Humpty contradicts her, “which is to be master—that’s all.” Then he goes on to tell her that some words have tempers, and verbs are the proudest.
I think we can learn a lot from Alice’s interaction with Humpty Dumpty. How often do we speak without thinking? And although we’d like to think so, words don’t always mean just what we choose them to mean. Sometimes a word may mean one thing to me and something else entirely to the person I’m speaking to. And that’s where we get into trouble, because words do indeed have tempers, and they aren’t the only ones. People are very like those words Humpty Dumpty was talking about. And words aren’t the only ones who are proud either, are they? Sometimes we say something stupid or hurtful, and we know it, but we don’t want to admit it because we are too proud, so then we say more stupid things trying to cover up the fact that we are wrong.
It’s very similar, in fact to the passage in the book of James where he talks about the tongue. He says, “Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the image of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening?” (James 3:5-11)
In some ways, Alice and Humpty Dumpty are both right, and the question is both whether you can make words mean so many different things, and which is to be master. We can’t always make words mean just what we choose them to mean. Words tend to take on a life of their own. But, if we can’t control their meaning, we can still control who is master: us, or the words we say? Will we let our tongues go free and set a destroying fire to our lives, or will we quench it?