“I’ve, like, got to get there, like, now”: A Rant on Language, Unintelligibility, and Irreverence

Eleanor Bourg Donlon

Once upon a time, the word “like” had a soul. Modern tongues have since beaten the word like the proverbial dead horse, badgering it to the meaningless status of non-verbal filler. “Um” and “like” can be used almost interchangeably.

This is an offense into which we all fall, and far too often. People no longer speak or say, they “say, like,” or simply “was, like.” The frequency with which the word appears in everyday conversation reminds me of a hazing ritual my father endured in the Naval Academy. When so directed by an upperclassman, young plebes were forced to recite sundry lyrical compositions, sometimes interjecting the word “sir” after every word. As thus (in response to the question “why didn’t you say ‘sir’?”):

Sir, sir is a subservient word surviving from the surly days of old Serbia, when certain serfs, too ignorant to remember their lord’s names, yet too servile to blaspheme them, circumvented the situation by surrogating the subservient word sir, by which I now belatedly address a certain senior cirroped who correctly surmised that I was syrupy enough to say sir after every word I said, sir.

Some particularly unfortunate plebes would endure an even more intense ritual of recitation by interjecting “sir” after every word (Sir, sir sir is sir a sir subservient sir . . . etc.). My father can rattle off this complicated little formula with astonishing rapidity to the great delight of his offspring who consider it a sign of great paternal experience and wisdom.

The question that must be asked, in the light of this is: if the average teenager replaced all of these sir’s with like’s, would we look askance? The military exercise is supposed to drill the victim into the discipline of respect. “Like” is nothing more than an empty and nauseatingly incessant filler.

Alongside this preponderance of “likes” and “sirs,” we must consider other linguistic offenses. “I have got to get,” “I got there,” “I get it,” “Get that,” and sundry other manifestations come readily to mind (and even more readily to mouth). It might be argued that the overuse of the verb “to get” is a sign of the inherent selfishness of modernity—it is all “get,” “get,” “get.” I, however, am no expert on the subject of economics.

There is nothing technically wrong with many of these usages; except, of course, an appalling lack of imagination. Instead of “getting” somewhere, why don’t we “travel,” “journey,” “walk,” “drive,” “fly,” “hurry,” “saunter,” “skip,” “run,” “leap-frog,” or even “frolic”? Instead of “getting” something, why don’t we “fetch,” “retrieve,” “hand over,” “pass,” “pick up,” “obtain,” “carry,” or “bring” it? And instead of “getting it,” whatever “it” may be, why don’t we “understand,” “comprehend,” or “appreciate the extraordinary profundity” of the issue at question?

I ask these questions with a slight facetiousness. This is, as I noted above, more of an issue of dull and unimaginative repetitiveness. But how should we consider the issue when more than everyday language is at stake?

Nowhere is our lack of linguistic propriety more clearly demonstrated than in rampant taking of the Lord’s name in vain. Cartoon characters (supposedly presented for the entertainment and, we might wistfully hope, edification of children) toss off flippant apostrophes to the heavens that have nothing to do with the plot. “OMG” has even found its way into popular culture. It can be typed rapidly into an internet-based conversation with as little thought as is required for the insertion of an emoticon.

In the Page-Barbour and Richard Lectures given at the University of Virginia in November 2006, Janet Soskice, University Reader in Philosophical Theology at Cambridge University, declared that we do not really understand the meaning of the familiar phrase: “hallowed be Thy name.” This brief portion of the Lord’s prayer is, Soskice argued, utterly foreign to our modern sensibilities. Soskice’s analysis of Exodus 3:15 is likewise pertinent to this issue of linguistic irreverence (although her focus is on quite another and loftier subject).

We have only to glance into the past, to Mount Sinai, to recall the true awesomeness of the concept of God’s name: Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “YHWH.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:15).

The Tetragrammaton, those four unreadable letters given to Moses as God’s name, is a source of honor, awe, and wonder throughout Jewish tradition and the New Judaism that is Catholicism. Beyond this profound gift, God’s Name reverberates across the Old and New Testaments, appearing thousands upon thousands of times—El, Elohim, El Shaddai, Jehovah, Yahweh, Adonai, Jehovah-Jireh, Shepherd, Judge, Father—culminating in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

What is the significance of this ancient repetitiveness? Are we not of liberated modernity—free to call parents by their first names and to overthrow the oppressive patriarchal hierarchy of yesteryear?

If nothing else can demonstrate the tragic nature of the modernist crisis, it is this: we are fighting for the honor of being orphans, standing proudly on the principle of desolation and loneliness, and turning our backs upon our loving Father. His very name has become a thing of flippancy, irreverence, and casual cursing.

Modernity seems sadly reminiscent of a classic scene of Shakespearean wit (Twelfth Night, Act III, scene I):

VIOLA: …they that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton.
Clown: I would, therefore, my sister had had no name, sir.
VIOLA: Why, man?
Clown: Why, sir, her name’s a word; and to dally with that word might make my sister wanton.

In like manner but with a great deal less wit, has the very name of God become wanton. His name is dallied with more freely than that of any sister could be. If the number of times the Lord’s name is mentioned were in any way indicative of heart-felt love, it would be a sign of spiritual renewal to rival any of the great periods of lay devotion that pepper Church history.

God so loved the world that He gave us the ability to speak to Him, even to the point of giving us a Name, a form of address, a way to communicate and thus a path into communion with the Divine. He is the Word. We have seen his face. He speaks to us as Father. Our stance should be one of ecstatic openness to the Divine Word; not degradingly over familiar rudeness. We shall hope and pray for a day when bowed heads and knees are more closely associated with the Name of God than are the flippant tongues of teenagers and the angry cries of frustrated drivers.

To that end we suggest (with only the slightest touch of sarcasm) that every malefactor who dallies with the Divine Name be compelled to endure the Naval Academy formula seven times seventy times, all the while kneeling in fervent contemplation at the foot of the cross.

This article was originally published online at the Saint Austin Review Ink Desk.

Eleanor Bourg Donlon, assistant executive editor for Dappled Things and assistant editor for the Saint Austin Review, is an aggressive anti-nominalist as well as a freelance writer and an editor for the Ignatius Critical Editions of Mansfield Park (2010) and Dracula (2011). You can read more about her at www.eleanorbourgdonlon.com.