“Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say infinitely when you mean very; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” – C.S. Lewis
Growing up, my guy cousins and I were infamous for scrutinizing our uncles. From pranks to insults, as creative pre-teens, we dished it all. One uncle in particular received the most of our harassment. I remember picking on him about the words he used in conversation and in Scrabble. We mocked his nerdiness: “You only use big words to make people think you are smart.” His response to our cynicism was very charitable and rings in my ears to this day:.
“Words, he said, “words have specific meaning and you have to use the correct word to communicate what you want others to receive. It’s not about being smart, it’s about helping others hear what you really mean when you speak.”
Fast forward a few years… Irenically, I can now honestly say that an awareness of the power of language has radically shaped my life. Lately, I have been fascinated by a particular trend in the English language marked by the formulation of new “words” and phrases void of any real meaning except vanity or humor. A few popular examples from urban dictionary:
- On fleek – something that is just PERFECT.
- Bae – Before anyone else. Likely referring to your significant other.
- Can’t even – when something happens and you can’t even handle it.
- Ratchet – something that is poor in taste or not classy.
- Swerve – denying, rejecting and non-subtly dodging a request.
- YAAAS – an enthusiastic ‘yes’ (number of A’s indicate relative level of excitement)
Why are we seeking language that allows us to say something without really saying something? Why do we prefer phrases from the urban dictionary over those from the Webster’s dictionary?
Maybe it’s because we are trying to “swerve” intimacy altogether: We don’t want to be seen and heard for who we really are— a phenomenon significantly reminiscent of our first parents’ experience of shame.The words we use have become increasingly uncommunicative, marked by a lack of depth and a failure to express what is truly on our hearts. Our use of language as a means to articulate truth has devolved into an abuse of language— for the purpose of masking our brokenness with the fig leaves of sarcasm and shallow humor…
One of the insights that Bill Donaghy shared on a Theology of the Body 1 course was the meaning of sarcasm. The etymology of the word literally means to separate flesh; yet, instead of using the occasional sardonic (mocking) remark, we as persons have become a society of sarcasm…marked by separation, ambiguity, and anti-intimacy.
Consider “normal” interactions between men today. How do they relate? The endeavor is no longer to climb the rungs of manhood, it’s to push others down. The secular man is no longer called to “step up” by laying down his life for others… he is simply called to step on others.
My bowling circle from Lafayette is seen as a rambunctious group. I’ve noticed that the guys in particular interact in almost one mode—sarcasm. One on one we are usually chill, but in a group setting, the main goal is to embarrass someone else. With so much insult, honestly, sometimes I am shocked that we are still friends. We can all take jokes, but every so often it goes too far and someone actually gets upset. Because of this I usually make a point to be intentionally positive or affirm each one of them.
The importance of affirming the truth applies to both our spoken and unspoken language:
“You can say that you always were honest, and your words were clear from the start. But it’s more than just words that got spoken . . . there was language of the heart . . . but you’re speaking an unspoken language I thought that you knew.” David Wilcox, Language of the Heart.
In my experience, most interpersonal problems seem to be an effect of either a lack of communication or a miscommunication. We’ve become a people indifferent to the language of the heart—a people who function without intentions. This is true in business, politics, and most importantly relationships.
Though languages may evolve across generations, there is one language that will never change. Formed and breathed into life by the Word Himself, the “language of the body” is meant to express steadfast truths about the human person and about God. It will never be stripped of its spousal meaning.
“According to the prophetic texts, the human body speaks a ‘language’ of which it is not the author. Its author is man who, as male or female, as bridegroom or bride, correctly rereads the meaning of this ‘language’… By the words of the new spouses, the ‘language of the body,’ reread in truth of its spousal meaning, constitutes the union-communion of persons.” TOB 105:2-3
This is one of my favorite themes in our Beloved Pope Saint’s writings, especially because the “Language of the Body” is the remedy for all of our aches and pains. The language of the body is the language of love, calling us to make a gift of ourselves for the good of another. This sincere gift of self is the medicine to heal the wounds of sarcasm and separation we’ve all experienced.
Communio et Progressio, a Vatican II document on the means of social communication, said it well: “Communication is more than the expression of ideas and the indication of emotion. At its most profound level it is the giving of self in love.” Authentic communication should cultivate charity, peace, fellowship, mutual ambition, cooperation in creative work; every communication must be sincere, honest, and truthful, ultimately promoting unity. It’s no coincidence that “communication” and “communion” are derived from the same etymological root, meaning to enter into union through sharing life.
A recent example: Not long ago, my dad and I had a heart to heart conversation. We have been close, but for years we both avoided direct or substantial conversation about personal matters. There were pains that ached within me for years that I was afraid to discuss with him. But when we finally sat down with a cold beer and a free space . . . healing beyond measure. Pride melted away in both of us because we had the courage to be vulnerable about the language of our hearts.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that you cease joking and picking at your friends altogether. What I am advocating is that we do a better job of communicating in all conversations, verbal and non-verbal. We need to be more intentional about learning to speak the language of our bodies in truth. Instead of using anti-words in jest when communicating serious realities, we need to re-learn the language of the true Word who is the God-Man, the Word-made-flesh: The language of “this is my body given for you.”
Take the advice of John Mayer and “say what you need to say.” If you do, we can continue on our journey to the Promised Land; there, and only there, will our communication be…on fleek.
Colby Allen is from the beautiful state of Louisiana where he currently lives in Lafayette. Single and ready to mingle. His day job is working as an operations analyst for an insurance brokerage, and he is currently discerning new ministry opportunities. With his business experience, he plans to use his certification to spread St. JP2’s personalism into the modern corporate world. Follow his current writings and reflections at www.colbytallen.com.