Words are Magic: The Power of Language Over Our Minds

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Written by James Dowd,
• 7 min read

One day, as I pretended to take notes in a meeting, I watched my hand moving across my notebook and noticed something odd. With slight, unconscious movement of my pen, magic was happening. Symbols, shapes, ideas were coming to life, bleeding forth from my pen, and they evoked further meaning, emotion, wonder in my mind. I wiggled my pen on the page and images were born in my brain. Incredible! This was no small thing. This was something unbelievable that I’d simply never paid any attention to.

I realized I wasn’t merely spelling words. I was doing something wonderful. I was casting spells. It was magic.

And I’m a magician!

Crazy? Maybe, but only if you underestimate words themselves, the strength of them strung together, or our ability to wield them. Words can make your heart beat faster, make you sweat, make you cry, make you fall in love. So, instead, consider that words are of the supernatural sort, other-worldly, yet not; gifted to us by some divine spirit, maybe; ever-changing, not ours, simply floating in us and around us, shaping our world and each other, but still shaped by our own innate, internal passions and energy — our Blood!

Skeptical? Well, you can explain words as well as you can explain magic, and it’d be just as fun hearing you try. That’s because neither are driven by truth, but by belief. Our acceptance and understanding are not bound by logic, but by emotion. We believe in words, we breathe life into them, we toss them into the world and they thrive. But, when we stop, when we abandon them, regardless of their linguistic evolution, regardless of their past, they die. They exist to communicate, to express meaning and understanding, to serve as a symbol for something, and then…poof, they’re gone. (Magic.)

In fact, the word ‘spell’ — to spell a word — actually influenced the idea of casting a spell — to use magic to influence others. And, it had such magical power over me after observing my notebook scribbles, I went so far as to learn more from my favorite wielder of words and Yale professor, Dr. Mike Zimm (editor’s note: James and Zimm sit next to each other, so James “magically” just looked over and asked).

Zimm said, “The root “spellam originally meant story, saying, tale, history, narrative, fable and then the term ‘spell’ started to take on the meaning of a charm or magical incantation in the Middle Ages.”

“In the Indo-European tradition, words were always viewed as having magical abilities, or possessing a dangerous magic,” Zimm rambled on. “For example, the daughter languages of Proto Indo-European arrange the consonants in the root for the animal wolf in bizarre ways. This is probably because the original speakers (before 3000 BC) feared that if they said the actual word for ‘wolf’ it would magically cause the animal to appear. It’s the origin of ‘curse words’ — the belief that the usage of particular words had powerful negative effects — the ability to curse yourself or others.”

Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it. – Albus Dumbledore So what does all this magic talk really mean? Well, for writers, it means we’re magicians; we’re powerful. We can cast spells over the world by spelling words into existence and we can change the way people think, feel, and act. That’s our ability as writers, speakers, and storytellers, that’s our gift — to influence others, to create the unexpected, to change the way people see and understand the world, to put on a show.

Consider the power of one word alone. A single magical word can not only change something’s meaning, it can convince someone to change how they think.

In 1974, an experiment was conducted in which people were asked to recall what they’d seen in a car crash video. Some were asked if they’d seen “the” broken headlight and some if they’d seen “a” broken headlight. Those who were asked if they’d seen “the” broken headlight were three times as likely to have seen it than those in the other group. Truth was, there was never any broken headlight in the video.

A single, small collection of letters created a memory people believed was true! They reported on something that never even existed. Yeah, you got it, it was Magic.

Still don’t believe in the power of words? Finish this sentence:

“What if…”

Oh, the endless places those simple words, those six letters, can take you. The sparks of imagination burning in your brain this very moment. Your imagination, like a child’s, explodes with unrestrained possibility. What if you could use that very power of inspiration, creation, and connection with everyone you meet? Answer: you can.

We wielders of words, we sorcerers, charmers, creative conjurers, magical beasts, we are free to spell words into existence at will — writing that’s crafted to convince, to change, to instill a sense, a feeling in someone beyond their control. There’s real power there. We are undoubtedly unstoppable.

Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little. – Tom Stoppard For non-writers, take note: that power is not held by writers alone. We’re ultimately talking about the brain — our endless canvas, where words live and breathe — and it’s open to all. Artists, designers, strategists, thinkers, and any sort of creator in this world: you’ve made it this far, so I have a gift for you: you, as well, are magical. You too have the power to create thoughts, feelings, and imagery in people’s minds in your own way. You speak, you write, you think, you are unstoppable, as well.

How? By using your passions and craft to tell stories. You are human and therefore you are a natural storyteller. It’s built into you. You can control minds. You do it for yourself without realizing. Every night your stories give you an escape, letting you play in fantasy worlds. You go to bed and your brain sits up telling itself wonderful stories, both memorable and mundane.

Never forget that you are here today because mankind has spent thousands upon thousands of years developing the magic of communication and stories. How dare you not believe in it. How dare you not believe in yourself. How dare you not open your soul and share your magic with others!

Never forget that those who truly believed in their magic — who dedicated themselves to wielding it in new, powerful, exciting ways — they will live forever. Tell me that’s not magic.

Never forget that you are a force of nature with all the power of the universe on the tip of your tongue. Words are mankind’s greatest creation; capable of transcending time and space; capable of controlling the human mind; capable of anything.

So, embrace words and their power. Read, write, tell stories, wield your magic. Be a magician.

This crazy article is an excerpt from the book Write Dumb: Writing Better by Thinking Less, which can be found on Amazon or WriteDumb.com

And now for some added magic…
by Bo Burnham

Read this to yourself. Read it silently.
Don’t move your lips. Don’t make a sound.
Listen to yourself. Listen without hearing anything.
What a wonderfully weird thing, huh?


Now, hear a whisper. A tiny whisper.
Now, read this next line with your best crotchety-old-man voice:
“Hello there, sonny. Does your town have a post office?”

Awesome! Who was that? Whose voice was that?
It sure wasn’t yours!
How do you do that?
Must be magic.