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The ecology of words



Ecology is an expansive word. There is an ecology of just about everything. That is to be expected because ecology has to do with the relationships between things. The word itself is derived from the Greek oikos, meaning a house or home. In itself a house is a thing of wood or brick, with windows, doors and perhaps chimneys. A house becomes a home through the relationships that give it individuality. Of these the photos on the walls, the toys in the corridor, the books on the shelves and the cat fur on the rug are signs. Home is an ecological word.

Two people talking in a meadow (Getty images/SandraKavas)

To speak of the ecology of words can be illuminating because it evokes the wide range of relationships that words embody. It also invites us to ask broad questions about the healthy and unhealthy use of words in a society.

Words are most often judged by their relationship to truth and falsehood. Good words tell it as it is; lies deny what is real; weasel words draw attention away from it. The relationship between words and reality, of course, intersects with relationships between people. A society in which lies and evasions of truth dominate is by definition a sick and polluted society.

Words are also related to persuasion. If used attractively, words can confirm or change our view of reality. If used unattractively, they can prejudice people against truth.

The political and church world, in which words are used mostly for exhortation, evocation and other forms of persuasion, offer good and bad examples of the use of words. The sermons of St Augustine and of Lancelot Andrewes and the speeches of Cicero, for example, are persuasive because their words are beautifully matched to the reality they evoke. You will be able to supply enough of your own examples of sermons and speeches that are delivered without conviction, hose the listener with superfluous information, rely on stale language and images and try to intimidate rather than attract assent.

In the public world words are often carefully deployed to persuade people to ascribe to brutal and destructive untruths. When referring to people who have sought protection from persecution, for example, politicians were able to prejudice the public against them. They made them accept the need to treat them brutally by associating them with criminality, cheating, infection, invasion, terrorism and threat. Similarly, in order to evade the responsibility of the State to people who are disadvantaged, they represent people who are unemployed and disadvantaged are portrayed as dole bludgers, loafers, leaners and undeserving.


'Words are not related only to rational truth and to persuasion but to the truths of the heart.'


The same crude and effective rhetorical skills can be seen in the framing of climate change. It is no accident that the people who damage the natural environment for personal profit and exploit the economic environment in order to protect their own wealth and further to impoverish people who are disadvantaged, should also ravage the ecology of words for their own ends. The exploitation of the natural and social worlds and the pollution of words run together.

Words are not related only to rational truth and to persuasion but to the truths of the heart. They carry associations with the world of the past, with similar sounds in the natural world, with music and with communities which use them. Poetry, which at its best is a filter and purifier of language, explores these relationships.

When comparing the way in which people use words we can easily miss the value of their musical ecology of words. The language of Central American subsistence farmers, for example, was often described as impoverished because it seemed to consist of a huge number of swear words liberally used and few abstract nouns. It is musical, however, rich in affective variety, has many discriminating words to describe the natural world and a wealth of diminutive and other forms to express one’s perception of them. It is paradoxically rich in nonverbal communication. To return from poor rural communities to city conversation is to experience linguistic impoverishment, as well as enrichment.

Ecology is a relatively new word that has encouraged attention to the myriad of relationships that compose the natural world, an awareness of their fragility in the face of pollution and exploitation, and so to respect for them. If reflection on the ecology of words were to encourage broader attention to the variety of relationships that are embodied in words, to the fragility of language and civility in the face of manipulation and imposition, and to a treasuring of good words, it would be a happy coining.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Two people talking in a meadow (Getty images/SandraKavas)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, ecology, language



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Existing comments

A poetic revelation of the power of words, perhaps the greatest power we possess and the most abused and misused of all. The pen is indeed greater than the sword!

john frawley | 05 March 2020  

The topic of 'Words' merits four pages in my Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Quotations. An indication of the importance of words. At the start are two quotes, one from Homer 'Winged words'. And the other from Psalm 55 'the words of his mouth were softer than butter...'. At the conclusion, Steven Pinker informs us: 'A word, in a word, is complicated.' As I am currently reading The Psalter perhaps my treasuring of good words should be Psalm 55. I'm only up to Psalm 4 though!!

Pam | 05 March 2020  

In Christian belief, the dignity of words finds full expression in Christ, the "Divine Logos" and "Word made flesh." Both titles emphasise the availability of knowledge about God through God's self-revealing initiative, inviting and nourishing faith.

John RD | 05 March 2020  

I totally agree Fr Andrew. TV, that great Medusa's head, and internet games like Call of Duty have destroyed a love of reading in a generation. Parliament is no longer a place of reasoned debate, but a place of attack, abuse, hatred and purveyor of class division. If anyone gets the time they should listen again to Martin Luther King's inspirational mountaintop speech on youtube and I dreamed a dream. "I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exhalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together." Martin Luther King.

francis Armstrong | 05 March 2020  

My immediate reaction to the first paragraph of Andrew's reflections on the use and abuse of words I thought he was pulling a long bow. He's right of course. Ecology is a relatively recent word created to descrribe that branch of Biology that deals with the relations between organisms and their environment (Home) and that branch of Sociology which deals with the spacing (Home) of people and of institutions and their resulting interdependence. Alexander Pope in his poem An Essay on Criticism may have foreseen Andrew's insight when he wrote: "Words are like leaves, and where they most abound abound, Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found." Re the happy coining Andrew wishes for in his final paragraph: I would like to see the language used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) made simpler, clearer and more concise. Of interest to me is the fact that the word Mystery is not in the CCC index and yet the central mystery of the Christian faith is that the Word of God (Jesus) became flesh and dwelt among us.

Uncle Pat1 | 05 March 2020  

John RD has struck the nail on its head by referring to the inspired vision of St John when he refers to 'and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us' (John 1:14). Many religions, such as Hinduism and Islam, have a discrete sacred language in which the prayers must be offered. Christianity does not have one because Jesus is the Living Word. Of course, words are important in Christianity, especially in instances such as the words used at the Consecration in the Mass. The Church is very insistent on this because these are indeed Words of Power at a Sacred Moment. But it's not just the words, they are not 'Magic' but Sacred and must be said by a legitimately ordained priest in communion with the Church. One of the problems with modern society is that it has, to a great extent, lost its sense of the Sacred. I would contest that, in certain instances, such as the speeches of Adolf Hitler and the Nuremberg Rally, words and ritual do not just become degraded and misused by demonised.

Edward Fido | 06 March 2020  

And some words - all of them truthful - can make us tremble. The first three words of the Prologue of the Gospel of John can still do it for me at times. And always when they’re spoken powerfully as the two original Greek words. Why? An ecological Mystery?

Joan Seymour | 06 March 2020  

An awe-inspiring essay, Andy, generating some sublime responses! I especially like Francis Armstrong's contribution, indicating how Martin Luther King broke open Isaiah 40.4, on which King's memorable speech is based (and later reprised in Luke 3:5). I well recall John Kenneth Galbraith, then Kennedy's Ambassador to India, being invited to my Jesuit College in the company of Prime Minister Nehru on the occasion of our College Centenary to address an entire school assembly. A Presbyterian, keenly conscious of his presence in a Catholic setting, Galbraith reflected on his own education in a context in which the Scriptures had been syphoned through the baroque marvels of Handel, especially 'The Messiah', and how he had come to understand that the arpeggiotic baroque mode had been side-tracked to the point of being usurped and robbed of all practical meaning about the importance of justice and wealth-redistribution for all humanity. "While Handel's music exhilarated me", he said, "I had no idea of the value of the lyrics, until later on in life I encountered the world of welfare economics and the promise those words held for the poor and trampled upon!"

Michael Furtado | 09 March 2020  

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