By Maureen Pratt
Catholic News Service
Soon, family and friends will gather from far and wide to celebrate being together, giving thanks for blessings and once again joyously welcoming the Christ child in the manger. There will be many stories swapped and feelings expressed – a lot of good, old-fashioned talking as we catch up – all using words and actions to carry from person to person and generation to generation.
Hopefully, our words will express only love, support, gratitude, mercy and other positive sentiments. But, as we often see and hear, words can have other less uplifting effects, too, sometimes on purpose, but often unintended.
Today, our use of words has become very complicated. Technology has brought many new gadgets, concepts and vocabulary into our lives that have prompted a kind of techie shorthand. From tweets to emojis, this abbreviated way of communicating works well if we are making arrangements to meet someone or quickly conveying an idea or fact or two.
But shorthand is only effective when the writer and receiver understand it, and it is a poor substitute for a long heart-to-heart conversation. I like to know what’s behind the smiley face, even if it is jumping up and down on my computer screen.
Where we get our words from is another aspect of relating to other people that can be perilous. I shudder to think of the effects on our families if we used television (“real” or not) and other media-based programming as our gold standard for how to express ourselves!
A steady diet of this often-coarse expression can sink in before we are aware of it. It’s always good to think before rehashed news-speak emits from our lips – otherwise, we might have to carry our own “bleep” buttons!
On the other hand, sometimes efforts to censor speech seem a bit too extreme. An Independent Journal Review headline recently read: “‘American,’ ‘Freshman’: 12 Words That the University of New Hampshire Has Deemed Problematic.” Other words on the list include: “mothering,” “fathering,” “healthy,” “overweight,” “obese” and “homeless.”
Any of these words could be used as an insult, but not necessarily. I find it hard to imagine that saying, “I want to help the homeless,” is offensive. “Mothering” and “fathering” are long-used descriptors for recognizable, positive attributes.
“Overweight” and “obese”? These could be insulting too, but they are also legitimate words used by medical professionals and others.
And “healthy”? Personally, with all of my serious, chronic illnesses, I eagerly await the day when my doctors describe me that way, so no insult intended at all as far as I’m concerned.
As a writer, I revel in learning about and using a wide range of words. From technical jargon to everyday speech, our vocabulary when it’s at its best and most effective conveys intricate information, deep feelings and wonderful stories.
Language truly is a wonderful tool, and the love-driven process of constructing sentences enables us to understand one another, build bridges and progress toward common, good goals.
I hope that we don’t become so boxed in by worry, influenced by slang or slurs, or focused on our own sensitivities that we lose the ability to relate, generation to generation, person to person through the words we use.
As we gather during this blessed season of light, I pray we’ll lend an ear and our hearts to the words we hear and use and gift one another with only the best of who we truly are.
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Copyright ©2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.