As Good as Fingerprints: The Words We Use

George Prentzas on Unsplash

The “social psychologist James Pennebaker spent years researching the significance of our words. With a team of grad students, he developed a sophisticated computer program that analyzes what our words say about us. Pennebaker claims that the words we generate over a lifetime are like ‘fingerprints.’ Even small words, or what he calls ‘stealth words’ – like pronouns (I, you, we, they) and prepositions (to, for, over) – ‘broadcast the kind of people we are.’”[1]

Our words show who we are. They also show who we are not. A teacher who speaks of grace had better be gracious. The person who exposits the Lord’s prayer better pray and the one who teaches us to forgive had better not harbor bitterness. Does the teacher’s life match his words? He or she will be judged by them. But the same is true for all the rest of us: Does our life match our words or do our words betray us?

St. James says that anyone who doesn’t stumble in what he or she says, that person is perfect (James 3:2). He doesn’t mean that person is sinless but that he or she is the complete package. The theme of James’s letter is: “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature” – the same word used of the perfect person in 3:2 – “and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4). We cannot become complete if the way we use words is unchanged. Gossip, judgmental words, angry words, boastful words (even in our use of pronouns and prepositions), manipulative words, deceitful words all reveal that we are still incomplete.

Words have power, James goes on to say. His point (3:3-4) is that little words can have giant effects. I’ve known people whose entire course of life was set – for good or bad – by a few words from a parent or even a friend.

Sometimes the effect is good. I think I am a preacher because of brief comments from two men I respect. One of the best examples of the power of a word comes from the 1936 Olympic games that were held in Berlin, just three years prior to the start of the Second World War. Jesse Owens, an African-American, seemed a sure bet to win the long jump. The previous year, he had set three world records in one day.

As he walked to the long jump pit, he saw a tall, blue-eyed, blond German taking practice jumps in the 26-foot range. Owens was painfully aware of the tension surrounding his presence at the games. The Nazis were determined to prove Aryan “superiority,” and they intended to do it by beating Jesse Owens.

On his first try, Owens was so nervous that he went several inches beyond the takeoff line before he jumped. The error rattled him and he fouled again on the second jump. He was one foul away from being eliminated and he was a wreck.

That’s when the tall German approached Owens and introduced himself. He said his name was Luz Long, and that model of Aryan superiority stood there chatting with a black man in view of the entire stadium.

What Long said to Owens was this: since you only need 23 feet 5 1/2 inches to qualify, why don’t you make a mark several inches before the takeoff board and jump from there, just to play it safe? Jesse took his advice and easily qualified. In the finals, he set an Olympic record and earned the second of four gold medals he would win in Berlin. And the first person to congratulate Owens – in full view of Adolf Hitler – was Luz Long.

Jesse Owens never got the chance to see him again: Luz Long was killed in the war. But Jesse later said, “You could melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long.”[2]


[1] James Pennebaker, The Secret Life of Pronouns (Bloomsbury Press, 2011), pp. 1-3; submitted to Preaching Today  by Dave Bolin, Gadsden, Alabama

[2] Ken Sutterfield, The Power of an Encouraging Word (New Leaf, 1997), pp. 105-106

This entry was posted in Lifestyle, Spiritual life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.