During my first semester in college, I studied under a formidable Shakespeare scholar whose nickname, at least among undergraduates, was the “Dragon Lady.”
This professor had been given her dubious title not for her raspy voice, piercing eyes or habit of blowing cigarette smoke in your face during her office hours (although those features certainly enhanced the image). Rather, she’d earned her mythical wings for her fierce intolerance of imprecise and exaggerated language, English or otherwise. She was passionate about words, and she demanded that they be used with reverence and rigor.
I found myself in her office (or lair) one morning after class, distraught about receiving my first “B” on a term paper. As I reviewed the assignment with her, hoping she would reconsider my grade, she flipped through the pages and stabbed at a sentence with a bright red fingernail.
“That’s some of the most pompous phrasing I’ve ever read in a student paper,” she hissed. “Prince Hal and Falstaff didn’t have a ‘vinic kinship,’ they were barroom buddies. And there’s no need to write eight pages when I asked for only five. Rewrite this, bring it back to me, and never be this careless with the English language again.”
I did just that, and decades later, I still measure my words against this professor’s rubric — especially in what has become an age of hyperbole, where over-the-top verbiage rages nonstop.
We dilute words like “love” and “heaven” by applying them to passing fancies. With the same laxity, we dull the true horror that was meant to be expressed by terms like “Nazi,” “terrorist,” “murder” and “porn.”
Digital platforms compound the problem. Multiple exclamation points and (often inexplicably) capitalized letters clog Twitter timelines. Heated Facebook rants burn like wildfires in cyberspace, unchecked. Amidst hundreds of millions of posts each day, we scream louder to be heard, our words becoming more reckless and inflammatory.
And it doesn’t help that marketers actually encourage us to post on social media constantly, even while we’re asleep. Scheduling software can upload your tweets when you’ve put the phone down to get a little shut-eye.
In fact, social media consultant and author Neil Patel admits that he relies on such software to tweet “every hour, seven days a week” so that he can “[engage] with people all around the world … at all times of day or night.”
If your digital or physical mouth is open that much, you’re bound to put your foot in it at some point.
But we need not choke ourselves if we humbly recall that we serve a Lord who created us, and all that exists, by his word alone. Ours is a God for whom language itself, from wedding vows to weather reports, is sacred.
“Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No,’” Scripture counsels us (Matthew 5:37), adding that “anything more is from the evil one.”
Jesus isn’t against taking a legitimate oath in court. Rather, he teaches us that we should be so consistent and truthful in our speech that (as the old saying goes) our word is our bond, even without the extra confirmation.
Whether on the subway, in the supermarket or on social media, we as Christians should be known for speech that is always “gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col 4:6) so that it energizes without corroding our conversations.
St. Paul warns against “biting and devouring one another” (Gal 5:15), an admonition that could well be invoked to lock down most of what’s being posted on so-called “Catholic Twitter” alone.
To abuse the divine gift of language is to collude with Satan himself, who arrogantly dared to question, and then contradict, the words of the all-powerful Lord: “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden’? … You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil” (Gen 3:1, 4-5).
The taste of that bitter fruit has been washed clean by Christ’s body and blood, and our words — silent, spoken and written — must now bless and heal a broken world that is shouting itself hoarse.
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