Caring for Words, I: Words Themselves

Καὶ ὁ Λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν
The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14)

Christmas, 2017, a celebration of “the Word made flesh,” arrives even as the degradation of our discourse – the way we talk to one another – accelerates. With the currency of “fake news,” “post truth,” “alternative facts,” and contemptuous labels like “snowflake,” and “conspiritard,” it’s been a bad year for American English.

Though the crisis is most apparent in what now passes for political discourse, it’s not the fault of one man, one party, or one ideology, but the logical consequence of choices and habits over many years, some of which seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, that rapidly evacuated precious words of meaning, beat others to airy thinness, and discarded still others as obsolete. Sickened words form diseased sentences, and what thoughts they sustain become stunted, shallow, or helplessly sentimental. If an unchanging language is dead, a language that openly trades in lies, jargon, and euphemisms suffers from metastatic cancer.

Words have always mattered, have always been slippery, have always been potent, and so they have always been dangerous, particularly in the mouths and pens of those amassing power. This is not the first time words have been so abused, nor will it be the last. Perhaps they are always abused, sometimes more conspicuously than others. For these twelve days of Christmas (December 25, 2017- January 6, 2018), I plan to share the observations of better writers than I on the misuse of words and how we might better care for them.

It being Christmas, I’ll go easy on the reader today. Here are some thoughts to chew on:

“Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.”

  • -Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

“Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”

  • – Attributed to Abraham Joshua Heschel

“Bullets aren’t going to destroy this country. Al Qaeda’s never going to destroy this country. Our own words can destroy this democracy.”

  • – Sebastian Junger, interviewed by Joe Rogan, Joe Rogan Experience, Number 1034, November 6,2017

Image: Bernardo Daddi, Nativity

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