Do Words Matter?

Do Words Matter?

Do Words Matter?

A friend of mine in the Fellowship who loves our literature often says, “Thank God they wrote it down.” Truer words could not have been spoken. I continue to be grateful that A.A. co-founders (and others) wrote down their experience of our action-based program in the beginning days of Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1942, our co-founder Bill W. has been quoted as saying, “Our chief responsibility to the newcomer is an adequate presentation of the program.” (Page 105, As Bill Sees It)

Nowhere in the first 164 pages of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous does it tell the newcomer or any other member of A.A. to “Work the Steps…,” yet, I have heard that from day one in the rooms. Those words are simply not written down in the first 164 pages – yet, our literature DOES have multiple references to the idea of “taking” the Steps.

I loaded my Big Book onto my tablet and did a word search for “worked / working” and I found several uses of the word in the first 164…

Foreword to the Second Edition
“Prior to his journey to Akron, the broker had worked hard with many alcoholics on the theory that only an ­alcoholic could help an alcoholic, but he had succeeded only in keeping sober himself.”

Bill’s Story
“They had told of a simple religious idea and a practical program of action. That was two months ago and the result was self-evident. It worked!”

There Is a Solution
“But we saw that it really worked in others, and we had come to believe in the hopelessness and futility of life as we had been living it.”

Working With Others
“We have no monopoly on God; we merely have an approach that worked with us.”

There are no references in the first 164 pages to “working” the Steps, or having “worked” the Steps.

The concept of taking something (the Steps) however, is referenced several times, one being in the chapter, We Agnostics, where it says, “As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, a Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction, provided we took other simple steps.” The most commonly read statement referencing this idea is in the chapter, How It Works, where it says, “Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery…”

With all of that said, I must acknowledge that just after the Third Step Prayer in the chapter, How It Works, it DOES say (in regards to the reciting of the prayer), “The wording was, of course, quite optional so long as we expressed the idea, voicing it without reservation.” It would be easy to use that sentence as an “out” of sorts to using whatever language we want to use so long as whatever words we used are honestly and humbly offered. I’ve even had some folks in the Fellowship says to me when I make the distinction, “Rick, that’s just semantics. It’s all the same thing.”

While there is some truth to that, I believe words matter – and – I believe that Bill was diligent in the verbiage he chose to put in our book. For those who love A.A. history, you likely have access to multiple instances where Bill W. expressed his great desire to say the right thing at the right time. It is my belief that Bill felt a great responsibility to relating our message of recovery to the still suffering alcoholic in a manner that was clear and concise. I believe that Bill believed words mattered which is why he chose the ones he chose.

My grand sponsor who has been sober since 1959 tells me that he believes (and so do I) that we have a responsibility to the newcomer to help them fully understand the difference between the PROGRAM of Alcoholics Anonymous and the FELLOWSHIP of Alcoholics Anonymous.  The PROGRAM of A.A. is in one place and one place only – the first 164 pages of our book (which contains our 12 Steps).  It’s our “basic text” and our “design for living.”  It is our instruction manual.  Everything else is the Fellowship. If you look up the word “program” in the dictionary, several of the definitions it provides are:

Program: noun
1. a plan to accomplish a specified end
2. a plan of procedures to be followed
3. a prospectus or syllabus

In the same way that I was taught I am not “in the program,” I am “in the Fellowship” – I believe that I do not “work” the steps, I “take” the steps by working the program (working a plan to accomplish a specified end). It would be very easy to write this off as a juvenile attempt to stir up trouble, but honestly, my belief in wanting to use the right words (as Bill wrote them down) supports the belief that words matter. Just as I know today that I cannot play God in my own life, I need to be diligent in how I interpret our literature for myself – and – how I share that literature with the newcomer.

God bless,

Side Note: When I created this three-legacy study website, I very specifically chose to call it “Take the 12” as opposed to “Work the 12” or “Study the 12” for this reason.


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