Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Language, Truth and Hypocrisy

I have unintentionally pilfered two thirds of the title of AJ Ayer's remarkable book but I'll let the title remain because it suits the thrust of this post.

Just recently, I visited my mother and she was recounting stories after stories to me, many of which I paid hardly any attention to until she mentioned a recent "pot blessing" at her church. As a former altar boy and one who's thoroughly familiar with all the rituals of the Church, "pot blessing" rather floored me. What the devil is that? I'm familiar with the blessing of all kinds of inanimate objects from a large building to small items of jewellery but why on earth would a pot be blessed?

As it turns out, "pot blessing" is a common term in some church circles and it was first coined in the US, the land of fringe Christianity. The real word is "potluck" which also originates in the US. When my mother said she went to a pot blessing, it was only a potluck dinner she went to.

But why don't they say "potluck"? If you have moved in Christian circles for as long as I have, you will notice that there is a class of Christians who avoid all mention of the word "luck" or "fortune". To them, attributing anything to luck would be an affront to God who has a purpose for everything and controls everything. Whenever they encounter the word "luck", they change it immediately" to "bless". "Good luck!" becomes "God bless!" Although my mother is not that loony and she does say "Good luck" in her normal conversations, it's unfortunate that that monstrosity "pot-blessing" somehow crept into her vocabulary.

But this is nothing new. I have more than once been told that God was in charge of our destiny when I wished someone "Good luck", as if I didn't know that taking charge of people's destiny and, if I may add, often mucking it up, was a part of God's job description.

I'm familiar with the lengths we go to in order to whitewash our wrongs. When I was a boy, my friends and I would say we "disliked" someone when we meant we hated him. While our sentiments for the person were precisely what the word "hate" most accurately describes, we thought that by using a weaker word, we could free ourselves from the sin of hating another. Today, I see grown men and women doing the same thing I did as a kid and they seem blissfully oblivious to their blatant dishonesty.

The people who are quick to avoid the word "luck" seem quite at home with the days of the week. Pick any day. Tuesday is named after the god of battle Tiw in Norse mythology. This god is the same as Mars, the Roman god of war. "Wednesday" comes from Wodnesday and is named after the Germanic god Woden. Thursday is named after the god Thor (which most people today know best because of some Hollywood movie) and Friday after the Old English goddess Frigg, the equivalent of the Roman Venus. Saturday is of course named after the god Saturn. Even the Lord's day, Sunday is named after the sun which was once a god just as Monday is named after the moon which was once worshipped as a goddess.

Finally, the one word that takes the prize for hypocrisy must be "humble" used as a verb. In today's world, everyone, whether he's an Academy Award winner or a school prize recipient, no longer says he's proud to receive the award but rather, he's "humbled" by the award. But what I read in this month's church newsletter emphatically takes the cake. This is the title of the article:

It's an article written by a woman who attended a workshop to help those with financial difficulties. She was moved when she heard the stories of those who were struggling to make ends meet. But this is how she described her feelings:

I have removed anything that might even remotely reveal the identity of this good woman. The purpose of this blog post (like all my other posts) is not to single out any one specific person or to criticise him or her in any way. I'm more interested in the bigger linguistic picture but I have no choice but to take my examples from real publications.

What we have here is a woman who says she was humbled to hear of other people's financial challenges. Does she mean that she was moved? Or saddened? Or even that irritating word that is overused in Christian circles - edified? Perhaps she was edified by tales of how people in worse financial circumstances than she could continue to trust in the Lord? The English language is rich with a wealth of vocabulary that is capable of describing every single emotion that the human heart can feel. She was certainly not humbled and should not have used that word.

Why do people say they are humbled when they are clearly not? Now, I'm not talking about that good woman but I'm focusing my attention on the rest of the world including Oscar Prize winners. The reason is obvious. They are being hypocritical. It's the same old "I dislike him but I don't hate him" line that I used to mouth as a pious Christian boy who carried the silver candlestick to the altar every Sunday. It's the same "I hate the sin but not the sinner" line we hear from adult homophobes who love victimising the LGBT community and other defenceless minority groups but are too self-righteous to admit the truth.

When someone says, "I am humbled to receive this Award", what he really means is "I'm ecstatic to receive it but as a rank hypocrite, I want everyone to think of me as the paragon of humility even at this proud moment of my life."

Any living language is susceptible to change. As the world's most used language and one that has long transcended geographical boundaries to become the world's only neutral language that is not anchored to any one national culture, English undergoes such a rapid change that no book can definitively spell out all the current changes in the language. These changes which are affect not only grammar and syntax but also the meanings of words are usually caused by ignorance of the English-speaking public. The masses who are not so knowledgeable about the niceties and nuances attached to each word,  are apt to use a word in a way that is contrary to standard usage and over time, that incorrect usage becomes standard usage. I have no doubt that one day, the dictionaries will add a new definition to the word "humble" to allow for such a hypocritical use. And it will be a change brought about purely by our hypocrisy. 

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