The Language We Use

I am sometimes tempted to think that the reputation of today’s saint, St Peter Chrysologus (‘Golden-Tongued’), is helped by the fact that much of his writing has been lost. We have only a few of his sermons, none of which demonstrates his fabled eloquence — or at least not to me, who once had to translate a few of them.

I was thinking about this as I did my usual swift survey of social media and came up against something I have noticed many times before but never thought of mentioning on this blog: the carelessness with which we write and, in particular, the way in which it is thought acceptable to denigrate women and girls. Kind and educated people seem to think it unobjectionable to use swear words as adjectives and regularly refer to women and girls whose views they disagree with as bitches or worse. Why is that? Have we really all undergone a collective impoverishment of vocabulary, or has aggression become our normal response to anything or anyone we dislike, especially, but certainly not exclusively, if female?*

Some of us smiled at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s style guide, with its masculine focus, its determined refusal to acknowledge that language changes over time, and its misunderstanding of some punctuation practices; but no-one, I think, would ever accuse him of being deliberately rude. I find it hard to imagine him referring to an opponent as a bitch, for example, or using a derogatory term about those of a different ethnicity; and that, I think, matters.

The language we use says a great deal about us as individuals but it also affects those who hear us. If we have got into the habit of using profanities or referring to other people with the language of the farmyard, we have done more than merely coarsened our speech. We have coarsened our thought, too. In a world where violence is becoming more and more widespread, we cannot shrug off responsibility for the effect our own words and attitudes have on others. St Benedict was acutely aware of this and again and again urges restraint, thoughtfulness, and consideration for others. I think he was on to something.

*I’ve singled this out because I’m probably more aware of it, being a woman myself, and because there is no male equivalent. Calling someone a dog or a cur doesn’t have the same derogatory overtones.

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6 thoughts on “The Language We Use”

  1. Thank you for this. I often don’t leave comments on things that matter to me because of the negativity, hostility, crudeness and sometimes the aggression which is posted when people hold different views. I feel we have list the ability to debate our differences and restart to name calling and rudeness instead. Every blessing

  2. Dear Sister Catherine
    An interesting blog? How much responsibility do we have for the effect our words an attitudes have others? Is it our responsibility as to how they are received by others? How much is it to do with what some one considers civilised? Is it about understanding the culture within which one functions? Is the ‘normal’ response what is required for that moment? See your blog as usual raises questions, yet you are touching on something that, to me, seems to need to be retrieved, rescued.

  3. Thank you again for this important subject. Our language shapes our lives. I am saddened by the awful style of words used in official letters especially ones from hospitals. Important too to say the written word cannot be removed. The spoken word will be forgotten except for the words that hurt!

  4. Thank you for raising this .We seem to have increasingly lost courtesy and respect in the way we speak to and about others and restraint is often rare .and yes sadly women are spoken of in derogatory terms .
    We can all be guilty of speaking without thinking ,
    I have begun the practice of asking God dailyand sometimes more frequently to set a guard upon my tongue and wait before I respond or speak out my thoughts . Oh if we could all do this how much kinder our world would be !
    A work in progress ! The Master Potter is at work on such poor pieces of clay

  5. Thank you so much for this. I am at a loss to understand the bad language that is used , even by the very young. Love your blog, thank you.

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