Taming the Tongue

Posted on June 14, 2021


A few months ago, we looked at how words are perhaps the most important element in determining who we are and what we do. The geek word for the study of words is etymology, but let’s stick with words we can all relate to easily without having to open our online dictionary. I recommend Merriam-Webster’s, to find out, for example, what George Wills is trying to say in one of his columns. George needs a good editor.

I have looked up “existential” for example so many times in today’s world that I have no idea what anyone means anymore when they use it. I first saw it many years ago reading about “existential” modern poetry and literature, especially among the French literati after the Second World War, which I thought meant removed from reality, angry with the world, given to thinking like young men and women pioneering new forms of expressing themselves, existential. What do I know?

Here is the latest from Webster’s, BTW:  “of, relating to, or affirming existence, existential propositions; 2agrounded in existence or the experience of existence; bhaving being in time and space”

I like definition b: being in time and space. That limits it nicely to everything as near as I can tell. Maybe the angry young French poets lived a more meaningful existential existence.

So, let’s apply our new etymological skills. You can impress your friends with words that professors and eggheads like to use. What’s the latest etymological pathology of existentialism?

Ok, back to words. BTW, etiology is a nice one too. Doctors, “real” doctors as we say in the trade (MDs as opposed to PhDs) like to use it as the study of causes of a disease or condition. But it can be extended to explore historical causes as well.

What interested me in the study of words comes in the Book of James written by the brother, or half-brother if you like, of Jesus. James had a way of expressing himself clearly, unlike St. Paul who could be obtuse and whose logic you have to dig through. James wrote one of my very favorite passages in Scripture on how to control what we say in Chapter 3 (1-12), beginning with the paragraph “Taming the Tongue.”

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways…When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell…no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and saltwater flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”

Not only was James a really extraordinary philosopher and theologian, but he also expressed himself with amazing clarity, unlike his contemporary Paul. In fact, for James, words were the transmitters of all manner of life between all people. One of his most famous dictums comes in his first Chapter, verse 22: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” I gave it to you in the King James version of the Bible since so many of you are familiar with it and think perhaps that a Hebrew disciple of Jesus in the first century C.E. might have spoken like an Englishman of the early seventeenth century. We’ll examine differing Biblical translations some other time.

What I like about James in the above passages is how clearly he speaks that the words which come off your lips are indeed the tools of men’s behavior towards and with each other. Words are as powerful as acts since they precede and anticipate the actions that follow.

The beginning of John’s Gospel is equally magnificent, and indeed the Word means Jesus himself. Just substitute “Jesus” for the “Word” in the following passage.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” Hard to improve on that expression of the reality and power of Jesus in the world.

Published as “The power of words calls for taming of the tongue,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday June 13, 2021