How to control people’s thoughts with words

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Photo by David O'Driscoll

Photo by David O’Driscoll

I’m almost afraid to publish this post.

It feels like passing out a loaded gun to every random stranger that passes by.

In the wrong hands it could be very dangerous.

But when I think about it, it’s already in the wrong hands. The hands of con artists and cult leaders and politicians. And there is no way to take that power from them except to make everyone else aware of it.

Have you ever thought—I mean really thought—about the power of language? Most of us take it for granted. Not only as a tool to tell our families we love them, or to ask where the bathroom is, or to get anything done at all, but as the only way to transmit complex ideas.

It can take a whole book to explain one concept, but assign a name to that concept within the book, and you create a shortcut. Then, if a person has read that book, you can speak one word that conjures up an entire world in their mind.

Quixotic is a simpler example; in Don Quixote, Cervantes (albeit unintentionally) created a word which combined two previously separate ideas: chivalrous and foolish.

Back in 1948, “big brother” meant nothing but “older male sibling.” Then Orwell came out with 1984 and more than 60 years later, we still use the phrase to mean an all-seeing, all-powerful totalitarian government.

Or take the word hnau from C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, used to differentiate between animals and intelligent lifeforms in a universe where humans are not the only intelligent lifeforms. That’s an inadequate explanation, because the distinction involves far more than intelligence, or even spirit or soul—you’ll have to read the book to understand it.

Point: words are more than labels. Words are the means of wrapping big ideas in small packages, so we can hand them off to each other almost effortlessly.Collapsible concepts. Portable philosophy.

This is possibly one of the most powerful things on earth. Why?

Because you can use it to change the way people think.

Take a simple example. Consider the difference between the synonyms said and claimed. “Bob said he saw Linda at the store,” is neutral. But change it to “Bob claimed he saw Linda at the store,” and suddenly you doubt Bob’s honesty.

Or go the opposite direction and put “Bob confirmed he saw Linda at the store,” and suddenly the statement is fact.

Now apply it to one of our portable philosophies. Say there’s been a break-in at your condominium and the homeowners’ association votes to put up security cameras in all the corridors, so they can monitor who goes in and out of every condo. The cameras go up and everyone feels a lot safer. Then somebody graffitis “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” on the wall beneath one camera. Suddenly you’re conjuring up images of emotionless masses in jumpsuits being presided over by a giant television screen that never shuts off. Suddenly you’re worried a little less about security and a little more about privacy. And the next time someone proposes a measure “for added security,” you’re a little slower to agree. You might flat-out oppose it.

Why does it take a whole book to explain?

It only took me six words to define Big Brother at the beginning of this post. So why aren’t we creating collapsible concepts left and right? Because it has to be more than a label. If we’re going to remember it later, it needs to strike a chord with us. It takes the emotional journey of Winston Smith to solidify Big Brother in our minds. That’s the power of stories.

Of course, chances are, you knew what Big Brother meant even if you haven’t read 1984—even if it never “struck a chord” with you. That’s because it struck a chord with so many other people that it became iconic. That’s the power of storieson a world-changing scale.

Obviously, this doesn’t happen every time anybody writes a book.

But it can happen.

Remember that next time you’re reading a dystopian novel, or watching the news, or starting a new paragraph in your WIP. Listen carefully—and write even more carefully.

Learn about something even more dangerous: the death of words.

 Read more about mind control here.

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About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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31 Comments

  1. Controlling thoughts! Like 1984 :)

  2. This is a great post, one thought that I have had myself many times in recent years. (I’m not that old but mind control is a scary thought…and, sometimes, a reality.) I cannot wait to read about the newspeople….

  3. A fascinating read. I often think about this but you executed the thought perfectly. In my opinion, to have a good command over language can garner you power, respect and trust far more than money, good looks or anything like that! Thanks for sharing :)

  4. Mind control can sometimes be the difference between a word that works, and THE right word. *whistles twilight zone music* Well said, though.

  5. Interesting topic, Stephanie. Can’t wait to see what you have for us next week.

  6. sadly, for the next generation big brother will stand for a television show in which a group of people live together in a house and are filmed while they go about their daily lives. That’s even how wikipedia has it when you google “what is big brother”. doesn’t take away from you theory of course.

  7. Pingback: How to destroy an idea « BeKindRewrite

  8. Muahahahahaha!

    You know, I saw Demolition Man once, and one character said “what is your boggle?” as if to say “what can I help you with?” and that stuck with me because I thought “well that’s just stupid-sounding, surely we can come up with better futurisms than that.”

    Next thing I know? We are using the term “Google” synonymously with “internet searching.” …Google. That is a pretty silly sounding word. And now I am just waiting until the impact of the company sinks in and people start to use “Google” to mean the same thing as “Big Brother” in 1984.

    • Oh my. The extent of the information Google Analytics can gather about who visits a website (and what they do there and how long) may have us saying “Google is Watching You” before long.

      …But their failure to produce decent voice recognition technology is encouraging.

      I keep posting links. If I’m not careful, YouTube is going to think I’m sponsoring them.

      P.S. I’m not going to reply to your comment on arsidities. Because then it would be 51 comments. I will say here that I was afraid of the “arse” connotations, but the word had already stuck, much like a nickname. There was no turning back.

      • *hunkers down under desk, hands reaching up to type* they are watching me… whimper.

        At least you keep posting hilarious ones. That had me cracking up! I must show it to my housemate.

        Are you o.c.d. too or is it just a courtesy? :)

        • I’m actually not as worried about Google as I am about Facebook. Social media experts are predicting it will become more and more necessary to have a Facebook page to do pretty much anything online. Services like Spotify are already Facebook dependent. I still refuse to get a page.

          Part OCD, part courtesy. I wouldn’t have noticed the 50 comments if you hadn’t pointed it out, but now that I do, I don’t want to ruin it.

  9. Facebook is pretty creepy now. I have a page that’s hidden and I almost never log on, but I am tempted to delete it now.

    Fifty is such a nice number!

  10. Thanks for the gun.
    Look out for a book written by Jackal Zealot.

  11. Pingback: Archives for the Holidays: How to control people’s thoughts with words « BeKindRewrite

  12. Well said. Words are so powerful it’s almost scary.

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