It’s no secret. I like words. In fact, I get a kick out of keeping company with words. So today I thought I’d share a few words about a few words I find fascinating: oops, silly, and odor.
I was at Mass one Sunday. The congregation had just finished singing the entrance hymn. As people were putting their hymnals down, we heard a loud WHAM that resounded throughout the church. We all knew instantly what had happened. Someone had dropped their big fat hymnal on the wooden pew and WHAM! Immediately after the WHAM, a little child’s voice was heard to say, “OOPS!” The congregation chuckled.
Even though that little kid was only a few years old, he had already learned the meaning of the word oops. And what is that meaning? Oops is an exclamation uttered after making a mistake—usually a small mistake. But where does the word come from? Here’s one theory. Oops can be traced back to the 18th Century. When adults playfully lifted their children in the air and sometimes turned them upside down, they would say up-a-daisy which evolved into upsidaisy which was eventually shortened to oops. There are two accepted pronunciation of oops. One uses a short u (ups) and the other uses the long u (oops.) I’m curious, how do you pronounce oops? I say the long u. Of course, if you never make a mistake, you probably never have to say the word!
Now let’s look at the word silly. What do you think it means? Maybe you’d say, silly means foolish, senseless, absurd, or even stupid. But it didn’t always mean that. Years ago, when I was a novice, we learned a Medieval Christmas carol. One line was: “while shepherds watched their silly sheep.” We laughed when we sang it the first time. But the choir director, who was also an English teacher, explained the line. At the time this carol was written, the word silly meant innocent, simple, childlike. But through the centuries, the meaning changed, taking on a more negative connotation. The lesson here? The meanings of words can change over time. Language is a living thing.
And now our third example, the word odor. Let’s say someone walks into the room where you are sitting, and asks, “What’s that odor?” Does the word odor in that sentence have a pleasant or unpleasant connotation? Most people today would say, unpleasant. In fact, that’s what the dictionary says. But centuries ago odor did not refer to an unpleasant smell. Have you ever heard the phrase, “The odor of sanctity”? Surely that odor would have been a pleasant one. Here’s the lesson: in English, connotations can change. Both odor and smell tend to be negative. So, when we want a word that connotes a pleasant emanation, we reach for words like aroma and fragrance. But someday, will these words refer to unpleasant smells? Who knows?
So what’s my point with all of this? I have several. First, language is not simple. Words have a history. Meanings, connotations, and pronunciations can change over time. When we are communicating with others, we must bear in mind the complexities of language—and be patient and careful. Second, language is a precious gift. Isn’t it amazing that I can utter sounds (or type squiggly lines) and convey my thoughts and feelings to you? Wow! And third, language is vital to life and community. Words have the power to unite us, to bring comfort, to heal. At the same time words can divide, hurt, or maim others. How important it is to use this precious gift wisely and with love.
Did anything stand out for you in this reflection?
Can you cite any words whose meaning or pronunciation has changed even in your lifetime?
This week, be mindful of your words and use them with care and patience.
PS: I ask your prayers for a retreat I will be leading Oct. 9 – 16 for 21 SND’s at Bethany, our retreat center here in Chardon. The theme of the retreat is “Exploring Other Voices and Finding My Own.” We will look at some major themes in the spiritual life—such as God, Jesus, prayer, pain and sorrow, love, death, beauty—and see what others have said about these things throughout the centuries. Then we will try to give voice to these experiences in our own lives, sharing with one another “our voice.” I think it should be enriching for all of us.
PPS: I know many of you are not getting my blog with your email anymore. All I can say is I’m sorry… I apologize… and I’m working on it (which means I keep informing our IT team about the problem.) Some readers offer a few suggestions in their comments below that may help you access my blog more easily. Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing and posting a reflection every week.
Our song today is one you might be singing in your parish. It’s “Your Words Are Spirit and Life, O Lord” by Bernadette Farrell.
I welcome your comments below!