The Sizzle Instead of the Steak

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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.”

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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.

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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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