After a recent wedding we left the church and followed a gray van to the reception hall. We wondered aloud whose vehicle it was, and I suggested it might belong to our friends, the Underwoods.
After a recent wedding we left the church and followed a gray van to the reception hall. We wondered aloud whose vehicle it was, and I suggested it might belong to our friends the Underwoods.
My wife said, “I think it is a Ford van.”
It was an odd thing for my wife to say. She wouldn’t know a Ford from a Chevy if it ran her over. Besides, the Underwoods drive a GMC.
I said, “No, it’s not a Ford van. I think it is a GMC.”
But she still claimed Ford. When we got closer I could see that it was neither, and announced, “It’s a Chevy.”
But she stuck with Ford. So I said, “I can see the ‘Chevrolet’ nameplate on the back.”
Then it came out. She wasn’t talking about Fords and Chevies; it was a Ford van — a van that belongs to our other friends, the Fords. One of the Ford kids must be driving it.
“Language,” said Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “is the source of misunderstandings.” Or at least its channel. “Words strain, crack and sometimes break,” wrote the poet T.S. Eliot. [They] “decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, will not stay still.”
They will not stay still, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to lasso them and put them to work. In fact, cunning people often take advantage of the propensity of language to stray.
In Chile there was a much maligned fish known as the “Toothfish” that locals deemed too oily to eat. But in 1977 the fish merchant Lee Lantz changed the name to “Chilean sea bass.” The sea bass became so popular with Americans that today it is on the verge of distinction.
Canadian scientists discovered a way to produce cooking oil from the rapeseed plant. But they had to do something about the name. So the product was marketed not as rapeseed oil but as Canola oil, and sales went through the roof.
In the 1960s, Frieda Caplan, an American produce importer, renamed the Chinese Gooseberry as Kiwi fruit because of it similarities to New Zealand’s national bird. Both are brown, round and fury. Imports rose dramatically.
The boney dolphin fish (unrelated to the marine mammal) was unpopular with diners — no one wanted to eat Flipper. Then in the mid-1980s, restaurants began putting its Hawaiian name on menus: mahimahi. It is now a favorite in sea food restaurants.
The fact that language won’t “stay still” allows us to replace negative terms with words that are more palatable. So when politicians want to pass new legislation they call it “reform,” implying that the new law will right wrongs. “Change” becomes “progress,” and “program spending cuts” becomes “fiscal discipline.”
Christians, Muslims and Jews are now referred to as “people of faith,” blacks are “people of color” and whites are — well, whites are still just boring. God is the “man upstairs,” the “Big Guy” and “my higher power.”
In the world of words, none is more slippery than “sin.” Sins are “blunders,” “mistakes,” and “personal indiscretions.” They are “wrongs,” “errors” and “poor judgment.” “Fornication” becomes a “hook-up,” “anger” turns into “indignation,” and “gluttony” is “overindulgence.”
Students of ancient languages know that this slipperiness is nothing new. Word meanings have always been fluid, and words quickly go out of fashion. How interesting, then, that Christian theology claims that God entered the world as “the Word” — “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Here at last is a word that stays put, that is rock-solid and trustworthy, and will never go out of fashion.
Shayne Looper is the pastor at the Lockwood Community Church in Michigan. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The Daily Reporter