It’s not “Just Words”

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Language has meaning.  Even if you don’t feel the impact of the message personally either because you don’t understand its context or you are not a native speaker, language is never “Just Words”.  In the Ten Commandments, God tells us not to use His name in vain, either in ordinary conversation or as a cuss word.  He tells us that using his name in ordinary conversation offends Him.  It’s his name, so He has the RIGHT to be offended if we take his holy name and make it common or trashy.  You can say, “its just words” but it’s not.  Let me give you some examples.

For example, you can’t just hop into a second language and flash about their swear words simply because they don’t have the same impact on you as they do on native speakers.  Their naughty words might sound funny or hollow to you, but they pack a powerful linguistic punch for their native audience.

In language school we had a teacher who said she thought the SH– word sounded chic and sophisticated.  She would just pop out this word any time she thought it was fun, and we would all cringe and ask her not to say that word.  She thought our reaction was funny.  We were offended.

A good writer will choose words that have a powerful impact.  For example, another blogger that I read used the phrase “50 shades of…” to catch the attention of her readers.  You can say that those are just words, but they have a cultural context now that the erotic novel 50 Shades of Grey has become famous.  She chose those words to get attention.  She chose them for their powerful cultural impact.  She chose them for a reason.  Words are not JUST words.

Recently I got into a Facebook argument over a picture title.  Newsweek printed a picture of President Obama on the cover with the title “Second Coming” which is a clear reference to the Christian belief that the Messiah Jesus will come a second time to rescue his people.  Clearly Newsweek is implying that Obama is a messiah come for a second term to rescue his people.  Those are not just words.  They were chosen for their powerful implications, their religious connotations.  They were intended to communicate more than just the message that Obama is beginning his second term.

My argument went something like this:

John (I’ll call him “John” because that’s his name, see, words have meaning.):  Newsweek is a political magazine not a religious magazine.  Second, I’m not sure anyone including himself has ever called the President the Messiah… (other people were commenting here) it’s called a play on words.  It actually happens a lot in titles… go back in history and see how many others you could say this about.

Me:  (I decided to join the discussion because this John guy was being an Ass- there, words have power.  Were you just offended that I said that word?)  It IS a play on words and it was chosen to communicate a specific message.  That’s WHY we Christians are offended.  Newsweek has hijacked language that is powerful and meaningful to US Christians and applied it to a human.  It would be equal to saying the President is Allah or the President is divine.  We fully capture the INTENTION of the play on words, we aren’t stupid.  We GET it.  and that’s WHY we are shocked and offended, John.

John:  So now you’re saying there is only Christian words and sayings?  That seems a little narcissistic to me.  Words are words folks.

Me:  No, I’m saying there are words that are powerful to other groups too, but these specific words “Second Coming” have meaning to us Christians because we use them to talk about Jesus.  If they had used words like “Rabbi”, that would have been offensive to Jews, “Allah” would have been offensive to Muslims, each group has words that are powerful to them.  It’s not narcissistic, it’s language.  It’s meant to be powerful.

John:  Look, I get what you’re saying, but the “second coming” isn’t owned by Christians.  Words are words.  It would be totally different if they called him Jesus or Messiah or pastor or rabbi, but they didn’t (here he totally contradicts himself by saying it would be different if different words were used.).  Article titles are meant to shock and get you to read the article or catch your eye.  Don’t be offended by the little stuff.  Some native Americans believe we are reincarnated also a second coming.  Don’t take a title personal is all I’m saying.

Me:  And all I’m saying is that I have a RIGHT to be offended.  I AM a writer.  I know for a fact that writers chose their words carefully and intentionally in order to communicate a specific message as concisely and powerfully as possible.  I never said Christians own these words.  I said they have a powerful meaning to us.  Since the words “second coming” clearly have no significance to you, I think you should just say that this is an offense that you do not understand.

So that was the extent of our argument.  Words are not just words.  Words have meaning and power.  Because they are powerful, we should be careful how we use them.  We should be reverent of God’s name, we should be sensitive to religious language or imagery (from ANY religious group) because they have a RIGHT to be offended if we hijack their terminology and profane their holy words.  And finally GOD has a right to tell us how we can and cannot use his name.  Do not take the name of the Lord in vain, don’t use it commonly or crassly.

2 responses »

  1. Words do indeed have power and speakers and writers must be held accountable for how they use (misuse) them. There are racist words that a Christian should never use (in my opinion one cannot be a racist and a Christian at the same time. The two categories are indeed mutually exclusive. The phrase “final solution” means something very powerful and elicits a visceral response to all Jews alive today. They have justification for being offended by these words. In certain parts of the world, to misuse words in portraying Mohammed can get you killed. The whole legal concern of criminal negligence or malevolent intent make it illegal to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater when there really is none. Words are at the root of our beliefs, symbols, values, and culture. Words can kill and words cal heal. There are observable biological phenomena which result from use and misuse of words. Words can cause acute ischemia, surges in blood pressure, adrenaline, and cortisol. Words can stimulate the amygdala in traumatic ways. That’s why a woman might pass out hearing her husband has been maimed, or unfaithful (documentable phenomena). Words are only just words to a fool . . . . Now there’s a word.

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