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Delights and Downfalls with Words

Brian Smucker
On Words (November 2021)
Healing the World

I admit it, I’m a word nerd. I grew up with Scrabble and Boggle, then progressed to New York Times Sunday crossword puzzles. At one point, I even wrote my own twelve-page dictionary of invented, adapted, and deliberately mangled words and meanings.

I have a Ball Perfect Mason jar that I keep coffee in. I love it that, in the middle of the word “Perfect,” there’s a finger-sized depression in the glass, a flaw that makes me laugh. I wear a tee shirt showing the lower half of a duck, along with the words, “Not playing with a full duck” (and on the back of the shirt, the back end of a duck).

Some words are wonderful for their own sounds: the towns of “Chichicastenango” (chee-chee-cast-uh-NAN-go) in Guatemala and “Ougadougou” (wah-gah-DOO-goo) in Burkino Faso are as fun to say as they are to visit. Go ahead, say them out loud, and see if you smile.

Some words carry special value in their spiritual meaning. Consider “abide” and “sustain.”

Some people are master wordsmiths. I think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” perhaps the most powerful piece I have ever read. Or the collected writings of Toni Morrison. Or the interwoven word pictures and characters that William Faulkner created. Powerful words, phrases, and images can move us to tears, to action, or both – or to delight!

Some people have a hard time with words. When they string them together, bad things happen. My favorite page in Consumer Reports is inside the back cover, a page that features typos and various other mistakes in attempted commercial communication. As a trade magazine editor, I was shocked to learn that someone with a PhD couldn’t make the subject and verb of a sentence agree. His research was good, his writing not so much, and as one tee shirt declares, “Commas Save Lives.”

Language allows us to communicate complex thoughts and feelings, but it also has a dark side. Words can be turned into weapons. A vast array of racial, ethnic, and other slurs gives us a nearly limitless number of ways to say, directly or indirectly, “I hate you because you’re not like me.”

Sometimes it’s more subtle. An athlete who has just won a race or a game often says something like, “I just love God so much, and I prayed so hard, and God came through for me today.” Really? God loves that athlete more than the other people in the race or game?

And some people deliberately use terms to mislead others. The U.S. military is the master at this. Here are just a few examples:

  • Troops = human beings
  • Enemies = human beings
  • Collateral damage = human beings we killed
  • Be a man = learn how to bury your conscience and kill people
  • Develop management skills = learn how to follow orders blindly
  • Targeted drone strike = assassination
  • Enhanced interrogation techniques = torture
  • Extraordinary rendition = kidnapping people and taking them to other countries to be tortured
  • Ethnic cleansing = mass murder
  • Weapons of mass destruction = others’ bombs and missiles, not ours, though we are the only country that has actually used them on people
  • Department of Energy = the government branch that researches, develops, builds, and stockpiles nuclear weapons, and produced Hanford, still the most polluted site in the country

Finally, we have the “Department of Defense.” Until 1949, this vast segment of our government bureaucracy was more accurately called the “Department of War.” Now it sounds like it exists to protect us from outside aggression. The truth is that since World War II, the U.S. has been attacked once, on 9/11. During that same timeframe, the U.S. bombed or invaded thirty-three countries. In addition, through the School of the Americas (since renamed), our military has trained and supported the dictators and death squads of twenty countries. The U.S. carries a military budget that is higher than the next eleven countries combined, and we are, by far, the top arms merchant to the world. Truly, our military is offensive in every sense of the word.

Sadly, the words of the Bible itself are often used as weapons, sometimes to declare that one’s beliefs are better than another’s, sometimes to support massive discrimination through nationalism, slavery, subjugation of women, and homophobia. Missionary work has often become cultural genocide.

So, sometimes I need to escape words. Meeting for worship is one place for this, but often I escape words by getting out into nature near my home. I walk in the sun, the shadows, and the moving patterns of light. I stand and watch a gorgeous red-tailed hawk soar on an invisible thermal updraft. I listen to chickadees as they chatter away and flit from branch to branch. I spy a downy woodpecker searching for insects. I watch a mother robin try to feed cherries to its fledgling, which is spitting them out. A deer and I eye each other; she reads my body language, relaxes, and goes back to grazing. I feel the sun on my face and the breeze on my arms. I step into wet grass with my sandaled feet. I smell the ever-changing blooms.

Other times, I go farther afield to explore parts of God’s creation a few hours away from my home. The snow-covered Cascades full of pines and firs and running streams. The Pacific coast, with its swooshing waves, waist-high dune grasses, and cool salt air. A nearby ridge, with wide vistas and sometimes five visible mountain peaks. The high desert, with sagebrush and many-colored rocks. Winding gravel forest roads, whose meanders reveal many surprises, always I watch for creatures flying, walking, hopping, or rummaging in the leaves.

In the end, words are both toys and tools. Play with them, use them well, communicate as accurately as you can. Then go off and live for a little while without them. ~~~

Brian Smucker is an incorrigible punster and birder. He is a member of Salem Monthly Meeting (NPYM) and active in Friendsview Worship Group.


Language military culture word games

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