Category Archives: Words Matter Until They Don’t. And Even Then…

The Dangers of Casual Terminology.

I wrote yesterday about smugness and elitism as a weird sub-quirk of progressive Christian internet culture, and I’ve been thinking a lot about language as a key factor in this.

The other night, I had a chat with a friend of mine with whom I’ve got a unique relationship; we alternately treasure and infuriate one another. We’re both smart, overly educated, loud, passionate people. And we love one another very much. But man, are we good at pissing each other off about the small things, and stimulating one another to new places of thought (which, let’s face it, often looks like pissing one another off). What started as a chat about the nature of class and free refills on soft drinks (really) took a turn when he used the term “white trash” to describe one of the individuals in an anecdote from his day. And it’s a term that gets my Irish up; I went down a conversational rabbit hole in which I posited that “white trash” is an inherently racially-incendiary term, because it implies that white people are inherently better than everyone else, until we choose to devalue ourselves as “trash” and thus denigrating a white person to a place of lower status. Basically, a piece of casually inappropriate terminology from him activated a whole bunch of jargon-y speak from me, when “dude, think about what you just said” would’ve done the job.

What we say matters; likewise, what we default to, when we’re not thinking about what we’re saying, matters just as much, if not more. Jargon is what we substitute for actual, intentional thought; it’s shorthand for when we don’t care enough to invest in being understood. Modern Reject has a great piece that hits on this.

I work for the Episcopal Church; that said, I’m also REALLY NEW to the Church, and a lot of highly-specified language gets thrown around every day. “Catechumenate.” That one trips me up every time. And then we get to the essential definitions of mission and discipleship–which we really can’t function without–and we find ourselves almost unable to say, in plain speech, what these terms mean. We get tripped up by the necessities of our own terminology.

What it comes down to: we have to be aware of the history and tripwires in our casual speech; we have to be aware of when phrasing or terminology becomes automatic or lazy or stale; we have to be careful of using terminology that becomes hard to simplify or define, even as it becomes ubiquitous.