WORDS MATTER: The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

This is a new feature where I will look at a word or a phrase and see where it comes from, it’s little quirks and meanings. It’s informal so I am not going to get all scholarly about it. I will cite my sources but I will not get all anal about it. Now there’s a phrase I could look at!

But today I am going to look at

quill penThe pen is mightier than the sword


This is a phrase that speaks to the power and importance of words. As people who love to read, and talk and write about what we read it’s fairly important. It is an apt phrase with which to inaugurate this feature.

Words are important:
They can give us power over someone through the way they make someone feel, as in verbal harassment of women,
They can help people see a moral position, as in Martin Luther King’s I HAVE A DREAM speech,
They can be emotive, positive like in a love poem or  with the negativity of a hateful email.

The world would be a better place if we all just recalled that words have power and are important before we speak them or send them out on the internet.

If you read a lot you may see this phrase bandied about as a favorite of people who believe that the written, or spoken word, is more effective in getting things done than violent action.
While it can refer to diplomacy or political speech or writing, it also speaks to just the power words and their meaning have. It seems to me it can also have a second degree of meaning in reference to the act of signing or using a pen to enact a written policy. It has also been used ironically as in stabbing someone with a pen and then saying the phrase. I think Bill in the HBO series True Blood used it in the last season after killing a lawyer who was trying to extort money from him

According to THE FREE DICTIONARY by Farlex (http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/The+pen+is+mightier+than+the+sword) citing The Cambridge Idioms Dictionary 2nd ed.

The pen is mightier than the sword.  (formal) something that you say which means thinking and writing have more influence on people and events than the use of force or violence Reason is our greatest weapon against such tyrants. The pen is mightier than the sword.

According to Wikipedia (coined the first known version of this phrase. One copy of the Teachings of Ahiqar, dating to about 500 BC, states that “The word is mightier than the sword.”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_pen_is_mightier_than_the_sword – cite_note-8):

The sentence (if not the idea, which had been expressed in various earlier forms) was coined by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Bulwer-Lytton in 1839 for his play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy. Richelieu with a sword

True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!

(I am struck by “True This!” because it reminds me of “True that!”)



The idea though goes way back:

Assyria the early seventh century BCE , the sage Ahiqar coined the first known version of this phrase. One copy of the Teachings of Ahiqar, dating to about 500 BC, states that “The word is mightier than the sword.”
This and below: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_pen_is_mightier_than_the_sword

Many people between Ahiqar and Lytton, since, have utilized the same concept including William Shakespeare in his play Hamlet Act 2, scene II, wrote: “… many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills.”

Thomas Jefferson: June 19, 1792, ended a letter to Thomas Paine with: “Go on then in doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword: shew that reformation is more practicable by operating on the mind than on the body of man, and be assured that it has not a more sincere votary nor you a more ardent well-wisher than Y[ou]rs. &c. Thomas Jefferson”

Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, who died in 1602 and was personal scribe and vizier to Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (Akbar the Great), wrote of a gentleman put in charge of a fiefdom having “been promoted from the pen to the sword and taken his place among those who join the sword to the pen, and are masters both of peace and war.

Syad Muhammad Latif, in his 1896 history of Agra, quoted King Abdullah of Bokhara (Abdullah-Khan II), who died in 1598, as saying that “He was more afraid of Abu’l-Fazl’s pen than of Akbar’s sword.”

It’s used by many corporations as a slogan from a gold pen manufacturer in the 19th century, a sorority and GEICO.

Eminem uses it in ‘Baby’ off his album ‘The Marshall Mathers LP 2.’

Similar information, corroborating that found on Wikipedia is found on The Phrase Finder: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/the-pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword.html

Yes, the pen can be mightier than the sword. It can elevate or it can cause harm.  The pen is used as a metaphor for writing and the written word, but the meaning has expanded.