At a joint session of Congress reconvened after the chaotic events at the Capitol Wednesday, Senate chaplain Barry C. Black stood and led a sombre prayer for unity.
“These tragedies have reminded us that words matter,” he said. “And that the power of life and death is in the tongue.”
It was a stark reminder of the weight and influence of words – how on that day and those that came before it, words had been used to frame and define events, and, ultimately, to spark action.
“Words are weapons, and words are also useful tools. It all depends on what people are doing with them,” said Sally McConnell-Ginet, a linguist and professor at Cornell University, and author of the book Words Matter: Meaning and Power, which was released last summer. Then, she amended the analogy.
“It’s maybe better to think of them like a virus,” she said. “They spread. They spread ideas, they spread attitudes. And they can help intensify them, too.”
As president-elect Joe Biden had said in a speech amid the occupation of the Capitol, “The words of a president matter, no matter how good or bad that president is. At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite.”
On Wednesday and ever since, finding ways to express what happened and describe the people involved was the subject of much debate and discussion. On social media and in news outlets, the conversations played out in real time.
Were those who stormed the building protesters, insurgents or insurrectionists? A mob? Terrorists? Was what happened a protest or a riot? An occupation or a coup?
Many of the terms were unfamiliar, not used often in a democracy, and that too was significant. The Merriam-Webster dictionary reported its top online searches, in order, as: “Sedition, coup d’état, coup, fascism, capitol, breach, insurrection, racism, treason, anarchy, putsch, terrorism, riot.”
Dora Demszky, a PhD student in linguistics at Stanford, was among those paying close attention to the words being used to describe the events. She says she was looking at a variety of different news sites, noting the use of terms such as “domestic terrorists,” versus “mob” or “group of protesters.”
“Just comparing it to the Black Lives Matter movement, and how people were framed then is very interesting,” said Ms. Demszky, who previously co-authored a paper focused on political polarization in language used after mass shootings.
“One of the things I feel is that people don’t realize how these frames unconsciously affect them, and that’s why they are so powerful,” she said.
She mentioned specifically President Donald Trump’s use of words such as “weak” and “strong,” which she said can trigger deep psychological responses in people, whether intentionally or not.
“I think just like how parents are not always aware how much the words they’re using to discipline or to talk to their children affects their development, the same way politicians affect people with their words,” she said. “And it can have a totally unconscious effect on the people.”
Mr. Trump’s words and use of language are arguably the most parsed, publicized and parodied of any politician – perhaps any person – in history. He rode to the presidency on chants such as “Lock her up,” “Build the wall,” and “Send them back,” and has, until now, communicated directly with an almost unfathomable number of people on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.
In the wake of Wednesday’s events, all three social-media platforms suspended the President’s accounts on the basis that he was inciting or encouraging the violence in Washington. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his platform was locking down Mr. Trump’s account because, “We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.”
An accumulation of the President’s earlier exhortations – including telling Proud Boys in September to “Stand by,” or promising supporters in a tweet that Wednesday’s rally “will be wild!” – reverberated in the chaos. When Mr. Trump finally addressed his followers in a video Wednesday and told them to go home, he spoke words not of condemnation, but of tenderness.
“We love you,” he said. “You’re very special.”
A tweet by his daughter, Ivanka Trump, addressing those at the Capitol as “American Patriots” was deleted.
Meanwhile, media outlets and politicians decided minute by minute how to describe Wednesday’s events, and the people involved in them.
The considerations were not small. Within the difference between a riot and a coup, mischief and sedition, a protester and a terrorist are a raft of legal and criminal considerations.
“People talk about ‘just semantics.’ It’s never just semantics,” Dr. McConnell-Ginet said.
“[Words] have a lot of power because they are part of how we do things, how we frame things for one another,” she said. “They’re part of how we collectively come to think about certain things and the attitudes that we form and share, and what we take to be okay and what we take to be not okay.”
By Thursday, Mr. Biden’s choice of words was clear.
“They weren’t protesters. Don’t dare call them protesters,” he said. “They were a riotous mob. Insurrectionists. Domestic terrorists.”
Others, including Republican Senator Lindsey Graham – who over the years went from a vocal Trump opponent, to an equally vocal Trump ally – have also taken up the “domestic terrorist” term for those who stormed the Capitol. Mr. Graham is among those pushing for criminal prosecution, as the situation in Washington evolves and the words to describe it matter more than ever.
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