On Words

To recall an old rhyme: “Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” In today’s world, it will have to be recast to read: “Sticks and stones can only break my bones, words alone can harm me.” Business Insider gives a list of fourteen words that people “consider are fine to use at the office but are actually racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive.”

We are confronted with an ever-changing legal or customary list of “hate” words. Newly forbidden words are added every day to an already long list of what we cannot say in polite or any other company. Even words we used twenty and forty years ago may be held against us. We cannot even whisper them to ourselves.

We are rapidly passing from a world of “free speech” to a world of “no speech.”  The pope himself seems to have decided that silence is the best policy even when it comes to issues that we need clarified. We spend half of our lives trying to read between the lines to see what the speaker is talking about.

We belittle the significance of the word. It is not just that the Christianity is built on the notion of the Word, though that is probably behind the flight from words that actually state the reality that they signify. We strive mightily not to call our sins what they are, lest we have to acknowledge them as deviant. Much of what we do to ourselves and others is hard to bear, so we call it something else.

The legal prohibition of “hate” language almost always has behind it an ideological effort to obscure what in fact is at issue. It is designed to approve what ought not, in fact, to be approved. Our minds, however, should be related to things as they are.

We are the beings in the universe who name things. To do this naming, we must distinguish things – this thing is not that thing. We see what things have in common and what things are not held in common. This difference in things that we name with our words demands our honesty.


We are dealing with things we did not make but which we find already there, already what they are. We simply want to know what a thing out there really is. We are not complete in ourselves until we know what is not ourselves.

“If we did not use words, with their syntax,” Msgr. Robert Sokolowski has written, “the intelligibility in things would not be identified and displayed. It would not have come to light. Words conjure up its presence, Intelligibility is potential, not actual, and there would be no understanding if there were no words and people to use them.” (The Phenomenology of the Human Person).

Intelligibility is already found in things. We do not put it there. We find it there. Words express what we find.

The evil of telling a lie, of deliberately saying or implying of what is that it is not, is the breaking of the link of confidence between our minds and what is. A pari, the good is the affirmation of the truth in things. We give the correct name to things and actions that we encounter.

A good dictionary will often give the history of a word – its earliest recorded usage, its various meanings if more than one. We also know that the same object, say a chair, will have as many different sound meanings as there are languages.

Suppose we have a hundred men each speaking a different language circled around a chair in the center. If we ask “What is that in the center?” we will hear one hundred different sounds. But all refer to the same reality. Our languages may divide us, but the reality to which they point unites us. We tell lies in the same world. Things are what they are. We have a name for them.

Why reflect on the word, “word”? The word refers us to something that is already there. We name it. We give it a word. We walk away from it but carry the word in our minds. We speak to others about something. We have to find a common language. Once we do, we live in the same world, unless we lie to one another.

The fact that we can and do lie does not disprove the fact that words have specific meanings. Indeed, the very fact that we can detect a lie means that we can know the truth. The “father of lies” in the Garden said: “You shall not die.” He knew better, as, eventually, did those whom he deceived.

All things were created in the Word. The intelligibility of things is made manifest and designated in words. The word makes known what is. The Word is the source of all words.


*Image: The Tower of Babel by Lucas van Valckenborch, 1594 [Louvre Museum, Paris]

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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