Say What? A Meditation on the Glory of Language and the Respect we must have for its Subtlety


A priest friend of mine moved to this country when he was in high school, and English was not his first language. It took him time to get the slang expressions right. A big expression at the time was “What’s up.” And it took him a while not to look up when people said this to him. And another expression was “Say what?” And when someone said this to him, it took him a while not to respond by saying “what.”

Language is a funny thing. It obviously has a precision that is necessary. Without the basic framework of grammar and vocabulary, communication could not happen.

However, language is also a very creative endeavor which makes it quite a moving target.

I was surprised to learn how different English sounded back in the 13th Century which I discovered when I was required to memorize the prologue of the Canterbury Tales. To this day I can still recite most of it by memory:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

But wait a minute, thought I, if English used to look and sound like this, a mere 600 years ago, then spelling and grammar, even vocabulary must have changed by lots of little misspellings and malapropisms down through the years. If that is so, then why did my teacher always return my essays with red ink marking my errors? Wasn’t I just helping to move the language to the next stage? “Not so” said my teacher, “You don’t have that much power. Now make your corrections and turn the paper back in.” Oh well, I tried. :-)

And yet it would seem that language is a moving target and that there is an on-going battle between the purists (the language police and grammarians) and the creative wordsmiths who push the envelope with language.

But the fact is, our language is rife with inconsistencies, crazy spellings and words that have outright reversed their meaning. Language is more art than science, if you ask me, and even if you don’t ask me. Consider some oddities:

1. We often use words to mean the exact opposite of their original meaning. We park in driveways and drive on parkways. Manufacture used to mean “hand made” (manu (hand) + facere (to make or do). Now it means just the opposite of handmade. Awful used to mean “full of awe,” “wonderful,” now it means bad or terrible. And so forth.

2. Language is riddled with oxymorons (words that combine two opposite notions): Old news, even odds, pretty ugly, small fortune, growing small, industrial park, baby grand, standard deviation, civil war, original copy, student teacher, recorded live, etc.

3. Some words have more than one meaning and can even mean something totally opposite. Thus we clip something to attach it to something, or clip something (like a coupon) to detach it. We also bolt things in place or bolt in the sense of getting away fast. We can hold up things, in the sense of impeding traffic, or hold up things in the sense of advancing them, such as holding up values. Oversight can mean to carefully attend to something by over seeing it, or it can mean to neglect something by not attending to it. Certain can refer to something of a very definite quality, or it can mean just the opposite referring to something vague and difficult to specify, as in, “I have certain concerns about your plans.” And so on…

3. And then there are the heteronymns that must drive non-native English speakers crazy. These are words with the same spelling but different meanings and often different pronunciations. “Refuse,” the noun meaning trash, and “refuse,” the verb meaning to be against. Read the book (present tense) and read the book (past tense). Primer (base coat of paint) and primer (a beginner’s book). I am now resorting to resorting the papers. The entrance leads to a display that will entrance you. I am certainly content with the content of this offer. At present he is not present. As the altitude peaked, he began to look peaked. He lead a procession to the lead mine.

4. And then, so many of our expressions really don’t make any sense:

A hot cup of coffee – when what we really mean is a cup of hot coffee. It’s the coffee we want hot not the cup.

A one night stand – but we don’t stand at night, if you get my drift.

Head over heels in love – But our head is almost always over our heels. Don’t we really mean heels over head, as in upside down?

Preplan, preboard, preheat – but what people are actually doing is simply planning, boarding and heating.

Put on your shoes and socks – the order is wrong. Socks need to come first.

Back and forth – but it does not pertain to physical objects to go back and forth. Rather they must go forth before they can come back. It should be forth and back.

Watch your head – but that is impossible.

Behind my back – but isn’t this redundant? As if someone could do something in front of your back?

5. And then there is a wholly inconsistent matter of how we handle verbs in English: Today we speak, yesterday we spoke, faucets leak but never loke. Today I teach yesterday I taught, Today I preach but never praught. I win and I won, I also sin but never son.

What a mess huh? By the way if you want to read more of these twists and turns of our Language, readCrazy English by Richard Lederer.

Two thoughts occur to me based on this craziness.

First there is the remarkable capacity for us to navigate the complex and inconsistent landscape of language. Our minds are magnificent and able to grasp the subtleties of language and also also to apply experience and context. Frankly our ability to speak and communicate is nothing short of a miracle.

And it is unique to us. None of the animals have such a profound system of communication wherein reality is literally symbolized and even metaphysical concepts are conveyed by a series of sounds, and/or written symbols (letters) in combinations (words and sentences). It is nothing short of astonishing that we can understand one another at all, especially given the rampant inconsistencies of our languages.

I suspect there is and must be something of soul power at work for us in communication. It is not that we simply have the ability to talk, but also that we have something to say. And having something to say we thus make communication happen. I suspect that if two people who had no language in common were put in a room, soon enough they we would be communicating, even if it meant inventing a language whole-cloth.

Our capacity to speak starts in our soul’s desire to understand and be understood. We have something to say and so we must say it, even using the crude and inconsistent too we call language.

Secondly, as a Catholic and lover of Scripture, I DO wish that people would take some of the same sophistication that they have in everyday conversation and apply some of it to scripture. Too many people read scripture in a mechanistic way, missing basic human contexts like history, and language tools and genres such as metaphor, hyperbole, poetry, allusion, word play, paradox, irony, and so forth.

Frankly it is our opponents the atheists who are most guilty of a fundamentalist and reductionist reading Scripture. They love to pull quotes out of thin air and and say, “See your God is a blood-thirsty genocidal despot.” Yet in pulling these quotes they have no respect for context, or later development within the Biblical framework. Neither do they seem to have any respect for the various genres at work or that history can be told in different ways.

That God’s Word conveys absolute and clear truth is certain, but it does this in a variety of ways, sometimes telling epic sagas, other times getting deep into the details of genealogies, and very precise delineations on places and persons. Sometimes the bible portrays grave sin, but not as approval but to set the stage for and the need of grace and mercy. Some earlier provisions and rules gave way as God led us deeper into his will in stages. Yet other rules and commands remain unchanged and are operative at every stage of Biblical revelation.

So, like any use of language those who read the scriptures must bring a significant degree of sophistication and appreciation for the subtleties of the text. Frankly, trying to read the Scriptures outside of the ecclesial context in which they were experienced, written shared and understood is to engage in an interpretation that is dubious at best, and deeply flawed at worse. The Bible is a Church book and must be read with and in the Church. The Catholic Church provides not only a context for the sacred text, but also the authoritative capacity to interpret the limits and meanings of the text.

Ah Language! Such a magnificent gift, and one so fraught with complexity. Handle it with great care and appreciation. And if this be so with human speech how much more so with the Sacred Text.

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20 Responses to Say What? A Meditation on the Glory of Language and the Respect we must have for its Subtlety

  1. Roger says:

    Yes and very good. Just look at Babel and the confusion of tongues! Then look at Pentecost and the speaking in tongues. The church in her wisdom used a common language Latin as a way of avoiding errors of meaning from generation to generation. Language always reflects the state of the Soul.


  2. Paul Rodden says:

    Hmmm. Try and read Catherine Pickstock’s, After Writing. 🙂


  3. Roger says:

    Thank you Paul
    I am looking BUT the confusion of tongues is off course an inability to communicate which in turn breaks down the social integration from family to nation and global. It also indicates duplicity of self interests in communication.

    Contrast this with speaking in tongues where the speaker is using one language and the hear understands in their own language. This has to be at a different level from writing and reading!
    Speaking in tongues at Pentecost transcends the errors flowing from the confusion of tongues.

    I say communication because of the key “.. The Word was made Flesh. ..” Public Revelation is the Words of the Word. However writing and reading is actually quite a crude and laborious earth bound and frankly haphazard approach to God.

    Now lets look at liturgy as the highest form of language. Well yes you can see where this is coming from BUT look at the separation between the formal training of the Temple and the Apostles. Now look at St Peter? was St Peter an expert in Theology and Philosophy? Why did Our Lord choose the passionate simply man as the first Pope? The danger seen again and again is this intellectual and learning trap, worse a geopolitical Pope. The only weapons left by Our Lord to His Church were and still are Spiritual! Our Lords treatment of the learned in His Day has a implicit lesson for today.

    Heaven will not suffer a Church of the world and intellectual pride. Lucifer is the master of sophistry and intellects. Be lowly and humble of heart.

    The Deaf, Dumb, Mute cannot be denied salvation and the Faith and this is the challenge to an approach to the Faith that has become worse than that of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. There is a seductive attraction to intellect and reasoning that verges on to mind games. However there is a reality that is above this and superior to it and this is the gifts of the Holy Ghost. The Deaf, Dumb, Mute can receive these gifts! In other words in Gods eyes the Deaf, Dumb, Mute can be a doctor of the Church!


  4. Roger says:

    I actually love Chaucer by the way and his synthesis of Norman French (55%) and Saxon (45%)(germanic) which is one of the reasons of course for words meaning the same thing.
    My interest is in this what is man and how does this manifest itself. So a distinction between Man of the earth and the tyranny of Self (must eat, must preserve, must own) and the spirit.
    What is the language of Heaven? What is the language of Hell. What is the language of the Souls Judgement?
    Gods Justice is exact and the Soul in judgement must know and understand its transgressions and sins. Even natural justice is commonly known. What is the language of natural Justice?
    Why this is really important is in liturgical reform and the arguments of communication. Is the 20th century translation of the Bible and its meaning the same as intended by a translation in the fourth century?
    My friend who died many years ago once walked out of Church because the priest save “Most highly favoured Lady” instead of “Full Of Grace” my friend was conscious of the vast difference between the two expressions.


  5. Toad says:

    “It is impossible to speak in such a way that one cannot be misunderstood.” – Popper.

    And then, right on cue, our kindly old Monsignor tells us…

    “A one night stand – but we don’t stand at night, if you get my drift

    Well, Msgr. Chas,…. but no, no, no – Toad will wisely leave this prickly topic to Dr. Burrissimo, or JH, or best of all Rabit – to explain the sordid mechanical details.

    For fear of committing compound and profound inanity himself.


  6. johnhenrycn says:

    Toad, speaking of language and the Rabit, the etymology of ‘Spain’ and ‘Hispania’ goes back to the ancient Phonecians whose word for the country was “Land of Rabbits’.


  7. johnhenrycn says:

    Another thing about English is that there are so many regional variants. I defy anyone to understand the patois of a born and bred Newfoundlander, or a born and bred Alabaman. And of course, there is the big divide between British and American English – two languages separated by an ocean. Read a story once about a Englishman who delivered the eulogy at the funeral in the United States of his American friend’s wife. He concluded by urging the bereaved to “keep your pecker up”, which in England means to keep your chin or your spirits up, but which is a vulgarism anywhere in North America.


  8. johnhenrycn says:

    …and what to do about Pslam 104:18 (KJV):
    “The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the conies” ??
    Clearly the psalmist was referring to rabbits (there they are again!), but cony,which originally rhymed with honey, is also a term of endearment for a woman and a reference to her, er, well you have three guesses. The 19th Century grammarian, Benjamin H. Smart, solved the problem by decreeing that henceforth, that word in the Psalm was to rhyme with bony


  9. Toad says:

    “Keep your pecker up, old cock – the chopper’s coming,” Says Gully Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth. (A great book. Or so Toad thinks)

    We Londoners rabbit in a secret patois of our own.
    When necessary.


  10. Splendid column with an enormous amount of truth in the comments on the Bible. (And almost completely free of copy-editing errors. As a text maven [“maven” in the sense of “freak,” not “expert”] I noticed only one error: I think “the crude and inconsistent too” should be “the crude and inconsistent tool”.) What is so valuable, though, in this column really is the idea that people should use more sophistication and understanding when they read the Bible. When I think of it, I suppose it would help if people could use more sophistication and understanding with regard to everything.


  11. Frere Rabit says:

    “We Londoners rabbit”

    You certainly do. But we rabits do not London very much.


  12. Toad says:

    London’s colossal loss, no doubt.

    And as for “Gay Paree,” Well – Oo, La, La! As Geldon is fond of exclaiming, I think.
    At least, we must be thankful that the naughty old pooves didn’t ‘tie the knot’ in Notre Dame.

    Kathleen might practically have tripped over him.
    As might ‘the happy couple.’

    Bit of luck all round, really, in some respects.


  13. Frere Rabit says:

    A romantic gesture straight out of “Le Grand Meaulnes”, and no doubt he felt happy with his little plan, but entirely disconnected with the protests of millions of sensible Catholics.

    Twenty years from now, as family life continues to disintegrate and the last remaining teachers put on their body armour before entering the classroom, nobody will remember that Dominique Venner shot himself at the altar of Notre Dame. Maybe few people will even remember that well-adjusted children were once the main product of the Christian family. Easy to sneer at the protest, but so hard to turn back the clock.


  14. Toad says:

    Some earlier provisions and rules gave way as God led us deeper into his will in stages. Yet other rules and commands remain unchanged and are operative at every stage of Biblical revelation.”

    It would have been considerably more constructive if The Msgr had explained exactly how we are able to differentiate between these alternatives.


  15. Frere Rabit says:

    Really, Toad? That is wonderful! I see by your selective emboldened text that the sticking point is no longer Biblical revelation? Progress of sorts, we may suppose.


  16. Toad says:

    Really, Rabit – we surely don’t believe in “progress” any more? Look where it has got us.

    Though I wouldn’t dream of having a bet on The Oaks today, without a revelation from The Good Book beforehand.


  17. Roger says:

    The Temple Of Reason is seen again in Paris. May the month of Illuminati and the law on beastile marriage. The suicide of Dominique Venner is equally against Gods Laws.
    Masonry is know for its double speak. Language that means one thing to the initiate and something else to the stranger.
    Gods language(voice) speaks in the Heavens, is written in the lives of the saints. His language cannot be contained within the passing fads of mans vocalisations. His language is clear and always loving and truthful. What is more His sheep Know His Voice(language)!
    John 10
    [25] Jesus answered them: I speak to you, and you believe not: the works that I do in the name of my Father, they give testimony of me.
    [26] But you do not believe, because you are not of my sheep.
    [27] My sheep hear my voice: and I know them, and they follow me
    Hollande and Cameron are simply stoking the fires that will bring about their own demise.


  18. kathleen says:

    In his Wednesday General Audience of 22nd May, Pope Francis said:
    At Babel, according to the Bible, the dispersion of peoples and the confusion of tongues began, the result of man’s act of arrogance and pride in wanting to build on his own strength, and without God, “a city and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven “(Gen 11:4)….. Sometimes it seems that what happened at Babel is repeated today; divisions, the inability to understand each other, rivalry, envy, selfishness.”

    So it all started a long time ago!
    The Monsignor (and we commenters here) may be looking at some of the more amusing sides of this “confusion” caused by language, but it is evident that through its peculiarities and complexities all sorts of meanings are deduced from texts that take us far from the original intention of the author (or speaker).
    For one prime example, look how the Protestants, in fiddling around with the name Peter (rock), try to justify their breaking away from the One True Church founded by Jesus Christ, to start their own churches. By using language erroneously (and quite often with intentional mistranslations), they make it mean what they want it to mean!!
    In fact, some of the books of the Bible were so appallingly ‘Catholic’, they decided to take them out altogether!

    The first feast of Pentecost, when everyone understood the Apostles who came out of that Upper Room and started to preach the Gospel, no matter what their language or precedence might have been, is surely a reflection of the future perfect state of Heaven, where all men will understand each other in perfect Truth and Love in Christ.


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