On the Importance of Words

Trajans column

The inscription on Trajan's Column dates back to 113 A.D. The person who engraved these letters, the Senate and the People of Rome who dedicated them, and Trajan himself are long since dust. But the words remain.

This particular set of characters happens to be the basis of modern typographyan unintended consequence, but true. Typesetters have long considered Trajan's column to be the gold standard of Roman capital letters. Every printed word in a Western language owes a little something to this bit of Second Century political adulation.

Which goes to show the persistence and power of wordsor, in this case, the mere form of words. This inscription was meant to immortalize a certain Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus for his victory in the otherwise-forgotten Dacian Wars.

Instead, it really came to immortalize an ideaone of classical beauty, of the delicate serifs and contrasting strokes which still support the alphabet you are now reading. It's a legacy far greater than quelling some upstart empire on the banks of the Danube.

In our twitterized world, it's easy to forget the value of words. “Less is more,” as communication gets stripped to its barest essentials. Syntax, elegance, and grammarall gone, in the service of utilitarian economy. We get what we need, consume it, and throw it away. We're okay with the fact that what we put out there is consumed quickly and thrown away, even culture and information.

Even before the Internet, we started using tools that made our communication shorter and faster. Now we're at an interesting point where we tweet. We’ll get to a point where we’ve reached terminal velocity, maybe grunts.

But just because we're no longer chipping our thoughts into stone, we shouldn't assume their lack of permanence or effect.

Our most trivial online musings rarely escape the unblinking, restless gaze of Google and its seemingly limitless virtual libraries of digital storage. It would be fascinating to peer 19 centuries into the future, squinting like some bygone artisan under a hot Roman sun, to see what of our words remain for others.

Language has a strong effect on others. From the orators of ancient Rome to the more modern sermon givers, presenters, and speech writers, we have long prized the skill of selecting the right words, and timing them well to persuade us to do something. Certain words are better than others to get people to give a study of 45,000 projects demonstrates which words work.


[inscription at the base of Trajan's column]

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