The sanctity of the word: Are we giving words enough respect?

February 5, 2023 8:00 am

Word cloud from Michael Bugeja’s column via

One of the most memorable biblical lines makes a pronouncement, a promise and a pact: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

The term reverberates in everyday sayings, such as:

  • “Mark my word.”
  • “I give you my word.”
  • “You have my word.”
  • “She kept her word.”
  • “A man of his word.”

In the above verse, Jesus personifies “The Word.” He knew the power of words as master storyteller: “He spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Matthew 13:34).

New York Times bestselling author Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback Church, writes about the benefits of using stories to convey truth. They hold our attention, stir emotions, and help us remember.

That’s why politicians, journalists and teachers rely on — and at times, abuse — the word.

When it comes to words, former President Donald Trump was offender-in-chief, telling an estimated 30,573 whoppers during his presidency.

Perhaps that is why his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, announced at her first conference: “I will never lie to you, you have my word on that.”

That was put to the test when McEnany testified before the Jan. 6 Committee investigating the insurrection. She was compelled to tell the truth under penalty of law.

The U.S. Justice Department takes words seriously. Witnesses are expected to tell the truth. When they don’t, they may perjure themselves.

Perjury has four conditions: A person takes an oath to testify truthfully, willfully makes a false statement contrary to that oath, believes the statement to be untrue, and knows it is related to a material fact.

Perjury, a federal offense, subjects violators to 5 years imprisonment. State laws vary but also classify perjury as a felony.

Two other infractions involve the word — copyright infringement and plagiarism.

Copyright concerns intellectual property and the right to control its distribution, reproduction and adaption. If a person steals from a copyrighted work and impacts revenue, they have infringed those rights.

Copyright is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Congress has the power to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

Plagiarism involves stealing or mimicking someone else’s written, digital, videotaped, photographed, promotional work or research, identifying it as their own without permission.

Copyright infringement is a crime; plagiarism isn’t. That’s an ethical issue. However, consequences can be extreme, as Joe Biden experienced during his 1987 presidential bid.

Biden dropped out of the race because a furor over word theft. He acknowledged that he plagiarized a law school paper in 1965 and lifted sections of other people’s speeches without proper attribution.

Perhaps one of the most embarrassing cases of plagiarism involved Melania Trump’s speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention. She said her parents had impressed on her “that you work hard for what you want in life. That your word is your bond, and you do what you say and keep your promise. That you treat people with respect.”

There was a bond, all right. It was with Michelle Obama — who said at the 2008 Democratic National Convention that “you work hard for what you want in lifethat your word is your bond; that you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect. …”

At first the Trump campaign claimed it was coincidence that the above and other sections of Melania Trump’s speech were similar to Michelle Obama’s. The “coincidence” excuse is easily refuted as odds against it are astronomical. Eventually, Trump speechwriter Meredith McIver accepted responsibility for pilfering those words without attribution.

Plagiarism in education and journalism are forbidden. In 2021, University of South Carolina President Robert Caslen resigned after plagiarizing part of a commencement speech.

More recently, NBC News fired former political reporter Teaganne Finn after an internal review discovered plagiarism in 11 of her articles.

Of course, most politicians, teachers and journalists never plagiarize. Nevertheless, they should be concerned about word theft.

What will they do if they witness it?

In “Advice for Plagiarism Whistleblowers,” authors Mark Alexander Fox and Jeffrey Beall state that “the most compelling reason to report plagiarism is to ensure that authors of original work are given due credit for their research and that this credit is not misappropriated by plagiarists.”

They note that reporting plagiarism can correct the record. Also, they state, reporting plagiarism “sends a consistent message to students, that is, that as academics we will hold ourselves to the same standards that we expect of our students.”

Everyone, regardless of profession or station in life, should remember the sanctity of words. We use them every day in texts, emails, posts, papers, speeches and articles. When we respect the word, we keep our promises, earning trust and credibility.

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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics." Views expressed here are his own.