Words matter—and little things add up.
We live in a time when people are constantly talking past each other—or all too often, shouting past each other, whether the topic is public health issues, political decisions, pastoral priorities, or questions of faith. “If it bleeds, it leads” has long been an apt description of media practices, and today we might update that to “If it causes outrage, it goes on the main page.” This is a nonpartisan phenomenon, an ecumenical, equal-opportunity temptation, and so is bad behavior online. Jumping to conclusions, being uncharitable, passing along fake news, oversimplifying and misrepresenting people’s views, indulging in mockery and abuse—these are temptations of the internet age, and Catholics are by no means immune. In particular, it’s easy to get drawn into an over-heated, rage-fueled, micro-attention-span online culture.
What can we do about it?
Our current cultural situation is very complex, and there are many different factors at work in creating this environment in which it’s so difficult to communicate charitably and effectively. What I want to draw attention to right now is one particular thread in the fabric, an aspect of this distressing dynamic that makes evangelization much more difficult if we don’t address it—and that is subtle, indeed almost invisible if we don’t pay attention.
Verbicide is my name for the misuse of language that leads to confusion, distortion of meaning, or a loss of substance for a word. Sometimes verbicide comes about through deliberate manipulation, other times through carelessness and imprecision adding up over time, and often because the culture has lost touch with the reality to which the word refers. A common instance would be the word “God”: when someone says, “No, I don’t believe in God,” that really doesn’t tell us much by itself—exactly what concept of “God” do they not believe in? But I want to focus now on verbicide closer to home—on the everyday misuse of language that you might be participating in, without recognizing it.
For instance, we see verbicide in action when people casually describe a cake being “sinfully delicious” or a cooking show as “food porn.” When a word that refers to something objectively wrong is used in a positive context, its meaning is weakened and vitiated: it’s no wonder that most “nones” simply shrug off evangelistic claims about avoiding sin.
Do these examples seem like no big deal? Consider how you’d feel if people habitually said something was “as delicious as rape” or referred cheerfully to “food pedophilia.” I’m guessing that those examples made you feel uncomfortable, even horrified, and you wouldn’t use them. That’s as it should be! But now consider: Did you feel bothered in the same way by my first examples of verbicide? The fact that even devout Christians will often unthinkingly use phrases like “sinfully good” means that even for us, who know the meaning, the word “sin” itself has lost its impact.
Verbicide is also operating when a word is used in ways that empty it of actual meaning, as when people use “Jesus Christ” as an expletive. We may think that we can compartmentalize our use of language in this way (“Well, there ‘Jesus’ just meant ‘oh, crap!’ but when I’m praying, it means ‘my Savior’”), but the effect over time is surely to reduce reverence for the holy name of our Lord—if not in ourselves, then in others who hear our verbicidal usage. It’s worth remembering that the Ten Commandments explicitly instruct us, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exod. 20:7). Our use of language shapes our attitudes and perceptions.
Verbicide can be corrosive not only of our communication with others but also of our own spiritual lives, gradually emptying out the meaning of vital concepts, so that we are left with the shell but not the substance. How often do we say “sending thoughts and prayers,” and then not actually pray? Do the non-Christians who see us posting such comments really believe that we’re praying, or is the meaning taken to be a vague gesture of sympathy? That’s a verbicidal weakening of the word “prayer.”
Consider the exchanges you might see on social media, productive of far more heat than light, regarding words such as social justice, “black lives matter,” hate, systemic racism, socialism, traditionalism, and so on. These words, and many others, have suffered verbicide through their use as slogans and shouting-points, detaching the words from any shared understanding of their specific meaning. (Socialism: any view of government assistance that I do not approve of. Hate: disagreement with my obviously enlightened views.) Again, this sort of verbicide is nonpartisan. If you see the other side doing it, but you never see it in your side’s rhetoric, you’re not seeing clearly enough.
When a word is used sufficiently often as a slogan or jargon word, it becomes disconnected from any real substance, and often ends up as a blank screen onto which any number of other meanings are projected. Such verbicide leads to the breakdown of communication between people with different ideas. These distortions of language are all the more dangerous because their effect is not based on rational thought or argument, and because the effect is invisible until the day that it bears bad fruit.
Why does this matter?
Our usage of language matters first of all as a form of witness.
When non-Christians see us jumping to a “hot take” about the wrongness of somebody’s statement without bothering to ask them “What do you mean by that?”, we have inadvertently sent the message that they shouldn’t take the risk of asking any questions or showing interest in the faith. If they do, they risk getting mocked or shut down because they don’t already have all the “right” views. When non-Christians see us using words imprecisely, it undermines their confidence in us when we attempt to explain important distinctions about doctrine. And careless use of language creates more confusion than we might realize. If we blithely use “mistake” and “failure” as synonyms for “sin,” will our explanations of confession make any sense?
Consider what Scripture tells us: “If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So, the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things” (James 3:3-5).
We are responsible for our use of language. It doesn’t matter whether any given instance of verbicide is used to convey a true statement or advances a good cause. The ends don’t justify the means. If we have to resort to exaggeration and manipulation of language to score a point or win an argument, then we must accept looking like a dummy or losing the argument.
Little things add up.
Fortunately, we can develop positive habits that will help us in our evangelization and in our own sanctification.
First, start paying attention for instances of verbicide—in your own speech, and in what you read and hear. Notice when a word is used carelessly, or too broadly, or primarily for its emotional impact rather than its actual meaning. This habit will help you begin to think more clearly, as well as to speak more truly. Consider making it part of your regular examination of conscience, as to whether your use of language would help others to trust you as a witness to the truth of the faith. As Proverbs exhorts us, “Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you” (4:24).
Second, take time to ask “What do you mean by that?” any time when you suspect that verbicide might be distorting the conversation. Mistaken ideas about the Catholic faith abound, and taking the time to clarify the meaning of a word can make all the difference between a hostile exchange and one that leads to insight. “I don’t believe in God. That’s a made-up idea to control people!” Don’t jump to a full-fledged apologetics argument—first ask, “What do you mean by ‘God’?” Then you’ll find out what, in particular, your interlocutor is confused about. “Catholics are idolaters. They worship Mary!” Hold off on the “No, we don’t!” for a moment, and ask, “What do you mean by ‘worship’?” You might find, for instance, that “worship” is so firmly associated with “singing” for many Protestants, that Marian hymns appear to be incontrovertible evidence of Mariolatry. Clarifying the usage of “worship” might completely transform the discussion.
Third and finally, make an effort to choose words wisely. Avoid exaggeration, hot-button words, and slogans. Consider St. Paul’s exhortation to “let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6) and the description of the wise person in Proverbs: “The mind of the wise makes his speech judicious, and adds persuasiveness to his lips” (16:23).
Weigh your words. You may find that you speak less—and that you post less often on social media! It won’t be easy . . . but it’s worth it. Be measured in your speech, and I venture to say that over time, you’ll find yourself developing stronger habits of both clarity and charity, conducive to your own growth in holiness and creating a better witness to the faith for others.