Words are a funny thing. They convey meaning, direction, and intent. Getting them wrong can be a who’s on first kind of affair. I had Arabic to English translation issues with my wife when first married. My wife would ask me for one thing and I would do another. “Put this in the closet” (she meant cupboard) “Bring me the table cloth” (she meant the dish rag) “Hit me with the telephone” (she meant call me up.) This is where tone might trump semantics. You have to listen. Like the universal all men know when your wife says. “Mad at you? Why should I be mad at you? No I’m not mad at all”.
You can see that things get lost in translation.
Some Bible scholars can get over-excited with a smattering of Hebrew. They grab onto the etymology of one word like they have the handle on the original intent but in fact have got things all wrong. Example: The story of Jacob and his tricky uncle Laban. When they finally part ways they mark a spot. Each will live on either side of the marker and promises not to bother the other, or to cross over. Such is the acrimony of their parting. The marker is called “Mizpah” which can translate as a watch tower, a line in the sand from whence you are vigilant for the incursions of the enemy into your territory. The translation when they part is generally “May the Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent one from another” What they really mean is that God will judge their two fates to see who is right. Still, you get silly two-piece friendship bracelets based on this Bible verse, from people who obviously did not pay attention to the nature of the parting in the original story.
Another instance is the curious story how Michelangelo’s Moses got horns. This statue also belies a rather unkind urban myth that plagued Jews in ghettos world over - that Jews had horns under those big hats. Hence the Medieval child prank to knock the hats off Jews to see if they had horns.
How did this myth come about? Translation error. The Hebrew Bible tells us how when Moses received the Ten Commandments from God, he came down the mountain with rays of light radiating from his face, the after effect of seeing God. The actual Hebrew word for ray, is “Karen” and it is the same word that is used for “horns”. You can see how people got things mixed up when they translated from the Hebrew and said that Moses came down from the mountain with horns on his head.
I am reminded that language is important. Every year you get some new words in the Merriam Webster dictionary. No surprises this year. Some new phrases are super-spreader, deplatform, and vaccine passport, whataboutism, and dad bod. Well, I know about the last one anyway. It’s why my girls tell me “DAD PUT A SHIRT ON”. One phrase I would add to that list is “follow the science” as perhaps a barometer for how far verities can wander from their intended status as immutable.
Truth can be damaged with the casual over-use of words. Truth may be one of the biggest casualties in 2021. It reminds me that such luminaries and Jordan Peterson and George Orwell have emphasized how very important precise wording is, to convey meaning. In a sardonic state of affairs, words used casually can intend to confuse by gaslighting the recipient. You think a word is supposed to mean one thing but it means the opposite as kind of a statement for how much the speaker disregards the value of truth. Orwell was pushing this home in his book 1984 with his “Ministry of Truth” which of course, was the opposite, the ministry of lies. You can see how Orwell was communicating the far-reaching consequences of language.
When Pilate asked Jesus rhetorically, “and what is Truth?” we understand that truth has always been mutable according to the handler and that words are important. It’s odd that the phrase “speaking your truth” has gained currency, given that it actually means that truth has many versions. It means that the speaker bears some responsibility. Hence the Bible tells us we will be judged by every idle word that falls from our lips. By idle, words spoken carelessly with little regard given to matters of truth or meaning.
Coming into the New Year, I will be vigilant for matters of truth. Perhaps it is more vital now, than ever to really listen. People betray their intent with words. They tell you what they mean, and what they are going to do. You just have to pay attention.