A priest-friend, years ago used an expletive that puzzled me; “Cheese ‘n bread!” he’d say, when angry or exasperated. He used the phrase so often it became his nickname. There had to be a story behind it, so I asked about it. He laughed and said that as a young priest he’d say “Jesus Christ!” in such situations until one day his Superior told him “the Boss” would not like His name being used in vain, adding that some parishioners were taken aback as well.. “Cheese ‘n bread!,” he said, solved his problem rather nicely, the first word giving him think-time.
My parents and, of course, the good nuns let me know, growing up, when my language worked against me. Nuns especially had a way of wielding the fear of God simply by raising a voice or pointing a finger. “Watch your language, mister,” they’d say. “Sorry, S’ter,” I’d answer, swallowing truly innocuous swear-words. Later, cruder four-letter words gave me a false feeling of manhood which I eventually got past.
I learned along the way that people wear their language like clothes. I looked into the mirror of my vocabulary and made some conscious choices about what worked best for me. To this day I have not always been swear-free but I think I generally wear my language quite comfortably.
Not so, it seems, for many others in this age of social networking. Language is changing constantly, and not just because of cyber-shorthand gobbledygook. Language is finding new outlets and a freedom that too often diminishes its power and purposes. Instant connectivity tends to work against sensitive communication, resulting in what might be called a kind of language litter. Words often seem to be weighed with weights of feathers as time is collapsed and technology miniaturizes both distance and boundaries, making the nun’s age-old advice timely today.
Texting and Tweets, despite their efficiency, offer little room or time for creative editing. Online conversations usually lack the dimensions, energy and sensitivity of face-to-face encounters. Email and blogs may be less susceptible to language litter, since they allow for at least some think-time. Still, the Internet, particularly social-networking, seems to invite and tolerate a level of language that is seedy at best.
For those who care, choices can be made, as my priest-friend discovered. Think twice before sending, even when that feels unnecessary. The “SEND” prompt would work much better as “SEND?” And always re-read before sending, eyeballing messages for language litter.
People may wear their language like clothes, but their language wears them as well.