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The Sizzle Instead of the Steak

Having studied Journalism as well as taught it at the university level and spent much of my life in journalism, I’m sensitive – some might say obsessive – about the use of language. Words and expressions that others would think nothing of often cause me mild irritation. Sometimes I see this exaggerated awareness as a kind of curse.

I’ve been noticing recently an increase in the use of the word “perfect.” Salespeople, wait staff and other retail employees now often use the word after completing a transaction. For instance, they may ask you for your credit card, you hand it over, and they answer “perfect.” I’m often tempted to say, “Nothing’s perfect, my friend, including my credit card.”

Another expression that I find annoying is “amazing,” which seems to be the only adjective known by people under a certain age. “You guys,” applied to people of all ages and sexes, is another. And, of course, there is the word “like” – as in “so she’s like, no way” – which some people, including professional broadcasters, use several times in a sentence.

Language Always Changing

I understand that my view is subjective at best and elitist at worst, and that language is always changing. And, that it may seem to someone of my age to be changing more rapidly than ever. What bothers me is the use of language disconnected from thought, repeating words and phrases in popular use without thinking about them.

I acknowledge that this subject, though insignificant compared to critical problems with which we must deal, is a bag of worms. It’s wrapped up in culture, aging, gender differences, politics, and yes, religion.

I suppose I’m influenced by a slogan that pre-dates any journalism experience: “You should say what you mean and mean what you say.”

“Linguistic Purification”

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine entitled, “The Moral Case against Euphemism,” reports on the exaggerated influence on the English language of what it calls “linguistic purification,” the campaigns by organizations to rid the language of what it considers sexist, racist or exclusive.

The campaigns seek, writes the article’s author, George Packer, “to cleanse language of any trace of privilege, hierarchy, bias, or exclusion. In its zeal, the Sierra Club has clear-cut a whole national park of words. Urban, vibrant, hardworking, and brown bag all crash to earth for subtle racism. …The poor is classist; battle and battlefield disrespect veterans; depressing appropriates a disability; migrant – no explanation – it just has to go.”

Ridding the world of privilege, hierarchy, bias or exclusion are worthy goals, but banning words and phrases that are only tangentially related to those often-harmful institutions and attitudes has, in my view, little to no effect. It is, in my view, a case of attention to the sizzle instead of the steak.

What has all this to do with the search for God?

Care and Thoughtfulness

Language is a uniquely human – and I believe, God-given – capability that deserves care and thoughtfulness. Careless, thoughtless language borders on dishonesty. People searching for God, as I’ve mentioned often in these blogs, must strive to be God-like and God is the model of honesty.

Personally, I have a problem of using expletives, usually “under my breath,” when lacking in patience. Their use has no positive effect on the problem I’m trying to solve. If anything, they amplify my frustration.

Jesus was aware of this problem, according to Mathew’s gospel. In a section about the ancient (and modern?) habit of swearing, Jesus is quoted in the Jerusalem Bible as saying, “All you need say is ‘yes’ if you mean ‘yes,’ and ‘no’ if you mean ‘no.’”

Our language reflects our beliefs and values. And, in my view, the more it reflects our search for God, the closer we are to God. 

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