a word spoken cannot be unspoken


A word spoken cannot be unspoken.

The effect of an uttered word is long-lived and, as the proverbial ripples, the consequence of a stone cast into a pond, ever-widening, non-ending.[1]

A word spoken cannot be unspoken.

An advisement that we take care, very great care with the words we share. I am reminded of the admonishment of the Apostle James: The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire…No one can tame the tongue; a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.[2]

A word once spoken cannot be unspoken.

I think of that now generations-old observation of children, in my experience and hearing, often spoken in public settings as an apology to others for unruly behavior: “S/he’s bad” and in private directed at the child as a word of reprimand, “You’re bad.” In either case, what is missed, I think, is the effort to discipline by conveying to our children the desired or required behavior rather than almost necessarily teaching our children that we believe them to be inherently disorderly.[3]

A word once spoken cannot be unspoken.

I – and this is long look back in the day (and dating myself and giving insight into my adolescent curiosity!) – think of that boundary-breaking, rabble-rousing comedian and social activist and critic Lenny Bruce.[4] In one of his famous (infamous?) routines, Bruce laced the air with a repeated torrent of denigrating epithets about every identifiable ethnic and racial group. His aim? To delegitimize those words by their overuse, rendering them ineffectual elements in the arsenal of the wounding weaponry of racism and nativism. A brilliant, even noble effort, I think, but one that…did…not…work. The words remain; their use rising with society’s anxiety with the progress toward universal equality and inclusivity.

A word once spoken cannot be unspoken.

I think of America’s recently (finally!) completed presidential campaign that saturated, sullied the communal climate with all manner of invective. In this, I especially consider our 45th President-Elect, Donald Trump, whose mastery of the act (the art?) of insult – among them, through the Republican primaries, “Low Energy Jeb” (Bush), “Lyin’ Ted” (Cruz) and “Little Marco” (Rubio), and then, during the general election, “Crooked Hillary” (Clinton) – honored neither civility nor veracity. On January 20, 2017, Inauguration Day, Mr. Trump, among numerous national roles, will become our Commander-in-Chief, perhaps, too, our Defamer-in-Chief and surely our Tweeter-in-Chief.

A word once spoken cannot be unspoken.

I also think of Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s previous presidential candidate, who made especial effort to denounce Mr. Trump (though whose endorsement he craved and received during his 2012 run at the White House). During a March 3, 2016, speech, Mr. Romney described Mr. Trump variously as “a con man, a fake…a phony…(possessing) neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president.” On November 19, 2016, Mr. Romney was asked by Mr. Trump to meet and consider a potential role in the Trump administration. Oh, to have been the unnoticed and observant fly on the wall! Given Mr. Trump’s consistently exhibited grudge-bearing animus, I wonder how that conversation unfolded. Perhaps, too, Mr. Trump’s invitation demonstrates his less-expressed capacity for pardon. One can hope. Yet whichever – both ever – the case…

A word spoken cannot be unspoken.

Now, I surmise the same is true for positive words of acclamation and affirmation. They, as words, once spoken cannot be unspoken. Still, there is, I think, a repeatedly demonstrable reality that we humans tend to remember and ruminate more on the negative than the positive.[5]

Nevertheless, as a Christian, in this Advent season of preparation for the annual Christmas celebration, there is one occasion in which a word spoken cannot be unspoken that enlightens my mind, lightens my heart, emboldens my soul, enlivens my spirit…

As John the Evangelist wrote: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.[6]

The Word, the divine logos, took human flesh in Jesus, entering the realm of time and space, standing on the stage of human history. And John’s wondrous statement, a cascade of words about the Word linked by the word “and”, testifies that God’s life-giving power is unconquerable, that God’s light-bearing presence is inextinguishable, that no matter how ebbs the tide, no matter how dim the day, God’s life and light prevail. For the Word spoken cannot be unspoken. Thank God!



[1] I believe this to be true also of words emailed, texted, tweeted, or otherwise set aloft in the universe of cyber-communication, despite the capacity of electronic deletion!

[2] The Epistle of James 3.5-6a, 8-10a

[3] If “badness” is a genetic predisposition or a learned behavior and fault must be assessed, in the name of justice, wouldn’t that be ours to claim, specifically, as the principal adults in the child’s life and, generally, as society at large? Would it not be fairer to say, “We’re bad”? I think so.

[4] Leonard Alfred Schneider (1925-1966)

[5] Perhaps it is our innate psychology that thinks more about the bad and feels more about the good that makes the former longer lasting in the realms of our recollections and reflections and the latter more ephemeral.

[6] Gospel of John 1.1-5, 14a