About Words

“So the LORD God formed out of the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each of them would be its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals…” Gen 2:19-20

The above passage from Genesis is not alone in its opinion that the ability to name things is something that separates us from other species. The use of words is really an amazing concept when you think about it. What is it about certain sounds emanating from a person’s mouth, certain symbols printed on a page, or written with a pen that allows us to transmit so much information. It is awesome to ponder the ability of the human brain to make the abstract connection between words and the endless variety of things which those words represent . Words allow us not only to name physical objects but to describe them. And it’s not just physical reality… abstract words can be symbols for abstract concepts such as love, hate, fear, beautiful, good and bad.

Some words such as “bang”, “tinkle”, “ding” have a direct connections to the things they represent. These words are symbolic of sounds and the words themselves are reminiscent of the sounds they represent. Such words are called “onomatopoeia”. However these words are the exception to the rule. For example if I write or speak the word “elephant”, there is nothing about either the sound of the word nor the written letters that make up the word that has any remote connection to the thing it represents. Yet if I speak the word or write it on the page for someone to read, immediately creates a picture in their mind of a large gray animal with a long trunk, floppy ears, and tree trunk legs.

In John 1:14 the evangelist describes Jesus as “the Word made flesh” with the word “Word” capitalized like a proper noun. He does so because Jesus is the ultimate example of the phrase “the medium is the message”. Jesus is both message and messenger. He is the perfect communication of the Father about who He is and His plans and expectations for humanity. Like all “words” he is a symbolic representation of something far bigger and far more difficult to grasp than the word itself.

Information technology pioneer Alan Turing once speculated that someday computers would achieve the level of artificial intelligence that was indistinguishable from genuine human behavior. He suggested that if you got in a chat room with an intelligent computer and could not tell whether or not you were talking to was a computer or a live person then that computer had been passed the Turing test of artificial intelligence.

Jesus being “the Word made flesh” is such a perfect symbol… such a perfect expression of that which He symbolizes… that He passes the theological equivalent of the Turing test.  In John’s 14:8-9 the disciple Philip asks Jesus to “show us the Father.” Jesus replies almost in anger “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”

In my own struggles of faith to understand what it means to say that there is “real presence” of the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist and in wrestling with the millennia-old debate about whether the Eucharist is just a symbol or is something real, it’s been useful to me to think of the Eucharist as a perfect symbol in the same sense that Jesus is the perfect Word. Jesus is such a perfect representation of the Father that he becomes indistinguishable from and one with the Father. For me that Eucharist is such a perfect symbol that it becomes indistinguishable from that which it represents. That’s probably not a theological explanation that would get an imprimatur from any Catholic cleric but it sure helps me wrap my brain around the biggest of Christian Mysteries.

Unfortunately not all words are as perfect at representing or communicating what was intended as is Jesus as the Word made flesh or Jesus in the Eucharist. Words are only effective if both the transmitters and receivers have some sort of communal agreement as to what the words really mean. The Oxford English Dictionary is by consensus the ultimate collection of definitions of words in the English language. However it’s not just a bunch of stuffy British linguists sitting around in overstuffed chairs with leather patches on their elbows and bow ties around their necks arbitrarily deciding what is or is not proper English. It is a large group of researchers who scour the written and spoken word to gauge how words are used in society. When a new word gets sufficient use in public discourse or an old word takes on a new meaning with sufficient frequency, in the dictionary is augmented or amended to reflect these changes in the living English language.

One of my favorite (somewhat ridiculous) pieces of the English language which has come into existence in my own lifetime is the suffix “-gate” meaning some sort of political scandal. I’ve not found a better example of how a word has taken on a new meaning so totally unrelated to and so abstract from its original meaning. The source of this strange usage is of course the Watergate scandal in which the Nixon administration engaged in burglary and other illegal acts in order to preserve the Nixon presidency. This scandal ultimately led to his downfall because of the egregious obstructions of justice carried out at his orders in order to cover-up the offenses. A few years later Lieut. Col. Oliver North under the Reagan administration was caught in a scandal involving Central American rebels and the illegal sale of arms to Iran. The scandal became known as “The Iran- Contra Scandal” which was soon redubbed by the media “Iran-Contra-Gate”. From that moment forward the suffix “-gate” took on a whole new meaning. Of course the media had a tough time adapting this strange new meaning of the word when Bill and Hillary Clinton were investigated regarding a questionable real estate deal known as “Whitewater”. Somehow calling it “Whitewater-gate” just didn’t seem to work given that the whole “gate” thing began with a different kind of Watergate.

Words are a strange thing indeed. They make civilization possible because they allow us to communicate. They allow us to grasp the ungraspable and ponder the unreachable. Words are such a bizarre thing that we even send our children mixed messages when trying to teach them about the power of words. On one hand we teach them “The pen is mightier than the sword”. On the other hand we teach them “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” In that respect words are like water. Water is essential for life but too much water is deadly. If the pan is indeed mightier than the sword then perhaps it is a two edged sword that cuts both ways.

In my next installment I hope to explore how words, especially words whose meanings evolve over time, strangely seem to evolve from innocuous and neutral means of expressing reality into powerfully painful weapons some of which society has concluded ought never be wielded.

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