A Deceptively Silly Syllogism
B: You have no doubt, at some point in your life, eaten your words.
C: You are your words.
The premises, obviously, are figurative. But the conclusion is nevertheless true.
Words are not just sounds that come out of our mouths. They both reflect and shape the way we think, and thus, who we are.
Words of Power
Read any fairy tale, fantasy, system of mythology you like, and you will see that words have power. Wizards do magic by means of words, whether for good or ill. Names contain and determine a person’s destiny.
If you want a better authority, look at the Bible. God created the universe through His Word. Do you suppose all power drained out of words after that? Far from it. Jesus assures us we will be held accountable for every idle word we speak (Matt. 12:36).
I will leave it to others more spiritual than I to exhort you to be careful of the content of your speech and to speak the truth in love. I’m going to focus instead on what I’m good at: the form of our speech.
The culture of “it doesn’t matter, it’s only [fill in the blank]” has definitely taken over with regard to the form of our speech. Most people—and I’m sometimes guilty of this myself—seem to choose words almost at random and fire them into the ether, blindly hoping the recipient will somehow sift through the morass and discern what the speaker actually wanted to say.
Jargon, slang, buzzwords, catch-phrases, clichés, and profanity dominate both spoken and written conversation. They flow through our ears making little impact, and they tell us nothing about the person we’re speaking with—except that that person either has no original thoughts, or doesn’t care to take the trouble to express them in more precise speech. Words like this have no power to penetrate the armor we encase ourselves in when we move among our fellowmen—in fact, they’re part of that armor.
As a writer, I’m forced to pay close attention to my words. If I get lazy and use any of the shortcuts listed above, my prose will lose its force and sink forever into the mire of mediocre writing. If I don’t say precisely what I mean, my readers will not figure it out. They will either keep reading without understanding, or they will stop trying and read the work of some other writer who communicates more clearly.
Wouldn’t you prefer the people you communicate with to receive the precise message you intended to convey? Wouldn’t you like to use real words, fresh words, words that have the power to break down the barriers between people and create true relationships?
Watch Your Mouth
If your speech is full of professional jargon, it may indicate your primary focus in life is on your work—and you don’t much care about anyone outside of it. If your speech is full of the slang belonging to a particular group, it may mean you want to declare your belonging to that group—and shut out those who don’t belong.
If your speech is full of profanity, what does that mean? It may mean you want to belong to a group that uses profanity—which, these days, is practically everybody.
When I was an adolescent, profanity was a form of rebellion, a way of saying to “the Man” that we didn’t care about his rules, his artificial standards, his superficial, hypocritical piety.
Now my generation has grown up and become “the Man.” In many cases, our kids can’t be using profanity as rebellion, because they’ve heard it at home all their lives. Now it’s not so much a way of saying “I belong to this particular minority group” as a way of saying, “I don’t want to be different from the majority.” It used to be nonconformist; now it’s the new conformity.
But what does it do to our brains if we say “s—” when we really mean “stuff”? On some level, it means we actually regard all of God’s marvelous and beautiful creation as nothing better than excrement. What does it do to our hearts if we use “f—ing” as a strong pejorative? It means we have devalued the sacred act of communion between a husband and wife into something not only valueless, but about as negative as you can get.
You Are What You Eat
So I exhort you, my friends, to follow that ancient and sage advice, “Think before you speak” (or email, or text, or Tweet, or post on Facebook). Think not only about what you are going to say, but about how you are going to say it. Use words that reflect, perhaps not the immediate, actual state of your heart, but what you know the state of your heart should be. Use words that respect the mind and heart of your listener.
Use words you won’t have to eat later.
This blog is part of the Orthobloggers Synchroblog for July 1, 2012.
Orthobloggers is a loosely associated group of Orthodox Christian bloggers. A synchroblog is an event in which many bloggers post on a single general topic at the same time—in this case, “How we use our words.” Other sites participating:
- Cristina Perdomo of Reachingfromadistance on Cement
- Matushka Elizabeth Perdomo of Living a Liturgical Life on What About Words?
- Dn Stephen Hayes of Khanya on What’s that you were saying?
- Susan Cushman of Pen & Palette on How We Use Our Words: “Christian” is Not an Adjective
- Bev Cooke of Bevnal Abbey Scriptorium on Words and Their Use
- Annalisa Boyd of The Ascetic Lives of Mothers on The Words of My Mouth
- Fr John D’Alton of Fr John D’Alton on How we use our words- jihad or struggle?
- Fr. Lawrence Farley of Straight from the Heart on The Limits of Verbal Communication
- Matushka Donna Farley of The Rafters Scriptorium on Few and True
- Claire Brandenburg of Holy Watchfulness on The Word
- Jane G. Meyer of The Sounding Orthodox Blog on Dear Critical Self