Flexibility or loss of identity

It is commonplace that the phrase ‘verbal abuse’ connotes the use of words by one person to harm another. I wonder if the phrase could also refer to our abuse of words themselves? This isn’t about the clever use of words – a delightful example of which follows below – but rather about a seemingly innocent but actually sinister hijacking of words.

Wordplay can occur without the vitiation of a word’s meaning.  Recall the tale of the vagabond jokester in England centuries ago who vaunted his ability to joke about any matter. To make a living he waged the coin of the realm that he could conjure up a clever remark about any topic. One evening at a village inn gathering his braggadocio began to wear on his listeners. When he bet he could joke about any subject they dared him to do so about the king. Knowing that such irreverence would be a treasonous offense the jokester hesitated and then said: “The king is not a subject’.

Now for an example of verbal hijacking. Those of you who watch television may have seen this ad for a certain luxury automobile. A young woman, presumably a mother returning home, walks into a house where chaos ensues among the holiday decorations.  The babysitter has lost control of the kids and everything is in disarray. Avoiding detection (and maternal responsibility) the woman slips back outside into her car where she pushes a button that reclines her seat, adjusts the temperature and activates the sound system.  The caption that subscribes this escape into her cocoon of unfettered luxury is “Joy to the World”.

Innocent or sinister? You decide. Is the marketing genius who conceived this seasonal play on words unaware, indifferent, or hostile to their traditional significance? Intentional or not, this wordplay is verbal abuse. The word ‘joy’ is abducted from the ethereal heights of her ineffability, minimized and then refashioned to fit into the tellurian constraints of commercial circumstance, a degradation all the more egregious given its occurrence during Advent.

Another word popular this time of year is ‘love’. Christmas cards, and even secular ‘holiday cards’ encourage us to share and spread it. Undeniably this is a wonderful sentiment. However, given the ubiquity of our gift-exchange mentality reinforced by our consumerist tendencies it is understandable that we might forget the reality that underlies this worthy sentiment, namely gratuitousness. Bonum est diffusivium sui. Goodness is diffusive of itself. It requires no reciprocity. It is not a sentiment. It is an irrepressible force. Indeed, it is the life giving and life redeeming Force. Christmas reminds us that to save us from our sins God gives himself and becomes one of us. Is it too feeble, our response to such magnanimity?

As the Holy Spirit promotes the advance of the Kingdom, we would do well to remember that while the word ‘love’ enjoys flexible significance its core identity is immutable and eternal. The sentiments of Hallmark and Madison Avenue cannot obscure it.

On behalf of the trustees of the National Catholic Community Foundation I would like to wish all our seven thousand readers a happy and holy Christmastide.