What do your words mean? In a world simply agog with content, do we stop to think about the words that shape, color, and present our interior life to the world around us?
Perhaps this line of investigation seems more appropriate within philosophical investigations, or within the context of the great academic debates of the university. But we as Christians are a fundamentally verbal people: for the Word became Flesh. We hear that so frequently; yet what does it mean that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is called the Word? What should that tell us about language?
Now in transliterated Greek, the term used is Logos, and that term is rife with meaning. However as I am not a Greek scholar, I'll leave that to the scholarly domain. But with respect to the Latin Verbum or the English Word, I have a greater comfort. The OED defines "word" as:
A single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed.
While grammatically accurate, this definition fails to express the full power that words have: They are the fundamental mode by which we communicate our interior form into the world that is profoundly Other. It is this sense of communication that we find in the Word, in relation to Whom all other words are named analogously.
As to the word/Word analogy, St. Thomas Aquinas has much to say. I will quickly paraphrase how he understands our proper use of the term word: 1) the interior concept of the mind that is properly called word; 2) the vocal sound signifying the interior concept; 3) the imagination of the vocal sound. Thus the Word in God is the concept of His Intellect, identical to the Father in His Being, but distinct in that He proceeds from the Father:
For the Father, by understanding Himself, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and all other things comprised in this knowledge, conceives the Word, so that the whole Trinity is spoken in the Word and likewise all creatures; just as the intellect of a man by the word he conceives in his act of understanding a stone, speaks a stone (Summa Theologiae I, 34, i, ad. 3).
The interior content of God is Himself as spoken/conceived. When we say that "the Word became Flesh," we mean that the totality of God-as-spoken assumes flesh to His Person. In becoming Man, the Word then proceeds to express Himself in the human mode of communication via vocal sounds, the communication analogate of which He is the perfection. It's rather astonishing.
So now that we have touched upon one of the mysteries of Inner Trinitarian life, what does it say to us who are made in the Imago Dei?
It means that our words—those that we form in our intellect as well as those that we employ for extrinsic communication—have a sacredness about them (to use an extended sense of the word sacred). Part of that divine image inscribed in us is our capacity to communicate. We are social/communal as a species because we can capture, albeit in a fractured and disparate manner, our internality, and then express to other beings how we as body/soul composites both encounter and comprehend the cosmos.
Moreover, in our verbal expression of significant vocal sounds, we infuse each word we speak, all content we compose, with our own markings. Words are not abstract, yet subsisting forms: Words are common goods, belonging to each of us communally and individually. My internal word "cat" and all that I mean to signify when I say "cat" to you is most definitively not identical to Schrodinger's internal word "cat," and yet they bear a certain identity despite this diversity—much like the diversity between Schrodinger and myself. (A diversity manifested in the fact that I am quite certainly here, while he retains the privileged possibility of being elsewhere.)
Our 21st-century life diverges from the post-Guttenberg era, and even from the radio wave era of the previous century, in that we are not only glutted with content, but that such content has expanded into the visual medium in an unprecedented manner. Is this bad? Not in of itself—I like Arrested Development as much as you all do.
But to neglect a critical analysis of our customs and normative modes of understanding is to cede to them a greater manipulative power over us. This undue influential power arises at least in part from our failure to consider the distinction between our intellectual faculties: the imagination as distinct from the intellect as distinct from the will. Often we would rather encompass all three faculties by employing the holistically encompassing, new-yet-old concept of the Mind, which I believe we use similarly to the Greek notion of Nous.
To offer an extremely condensed summary, the imagination is like the in-between of pure abstraction and the material world. You can imagine sounds, colors, pictures, sensible things. They are particular (this unicorn is pink and that one is blue), and are composed of sensibles while not necessarily existing outside the mind.
This isn't pure abstraction of forms. The intellect is what abstracts the forms from their particular material instances. So when I know the Pythagorean theorem, I can say I truly know it for the nature of triangle, not just a particular one that I can construct in my mind or on a calculator.
The will, finally, is what directs us to action. If we were purely rational, our will would move purely in accord with our intellectual comprehension of the truth. Yet many factors—such as emotion, timing, and proximity of cake v. skinny jeans—effect our discernment of what to do. Many of those impulses come to our will through the physical presentation of things (you know you don't need that 9th beer but it's sitting right there) or the presentation of material experiences and objects via the imagination. (I remember that one time I had chocolate cake and it was just so good that I clearly must have it again.)
Our world, with its overwhelming quantity of visual stimuli (memes, for example), provides ample visual content for the imaginative faculty. So we no longer think about issues—be they moral, political, or social—as merely abstract applications of the true and the good. We also approach them by way of an intrinsically emotional response, evoked by a series of visual impressions.
The term "abortion," whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, immediately evokes a series of images tied to the concept: not concerning when life begins (at conception), but of debate about 14-year-old rape victims, abuse, mutilated children, etc. The emotionally charged image allows us to see far more clearly the reality of a situation, but the visual medium is not free of abuse.
Images, as we know from photoshop controversies, can be framed in such a way as to express only the reality that the photographer sees. While such maneuvers can shed a powerful and effective light on the world, they can also shape our perspectives of the world if we remain ignorant of their artificiality. In a world in which our political discourse is communicated slowly through images, tweets, and memes, being aware of the content presented through the visual medium (both its reach and limits) is fundamental for fostering sustained discussion on issues that especially form our social-political discourse.
Words are integral to our humanity; while I love the visual realm, we cannot shape our discourse entirely within its limits. A painting or a picture is true as far as it goes, but it cannot be identical with an argument. A picture is worth a thousand words, but it is not in the end discursive; it does not ask the individual to engage her interior conclusions with the extrinsic world.
We are made in the Image of God, but nevertheless the Word made Flesh is what reveals the depth of His Interior Life. Words are meaningful and wothwhile. Along with our capacity to embrace the transcendentals, our verbal capacity is at once human and divine—and the loss of that intersection, so analogous to the Incarnation, would be a tragic one.
Words are important and have meaning. If you always mean what you should say, it's still worth the effort to say what you mean as well.