Monday, 21 February 2022

Image borrowed from


These days we have heard a lot about words. Most recently, an important story about words concerned a priest who baptized with the formulary, “We baptize…” instead of “I baptize…” In saying ‘we’ there was an error in judgment, which in turn caused an error in intention…if I am understanding the issue correctly. Now, people are discussing the importance of a single word. Some say it is important, if not crucial while others opine that a single word cannot possibly be so important as to invalidate a baptism. Most of us hold an opinion about the matter, but we need competence and authority to render a true judgment. So, having neither, I will leave the matter alone and write about words in general.

The first words we utter are usually auto-reflexive. In other ‘words’, our tongue, lips, and later on our teeth have a lot to do with what we express as sounds that we often take for words. A baby moves lips and tongue and sounds come forth that sound like words. These sounds are congratulated and encouraged and with such positive enforcement, these words are repeated until meaning and not just sound are emitted from an infant. This is how we learn words and sustain them in what is called a vocabulary or list of words.

According to The Economist, the facts about adult vocabularies indicate the following:

  • Most adult native test-takers have a vocabulary range of about 20,000-35,000 words.
  • Adult native test-takers learn almost one new word a day until middle age.
  • Vocabulary growth stops at middle age.

The test-takers were part of a research project at The Economist published a blog article about this research in 2013. While there are many exemptions and exceptions to these findings, it is true that we learn words as we age and there are lists of words that are called ‘sight words’ or high-frequency words that are appropriate to age groups. We also learn words that are peculiar to our interests and professions. Proof that we often stop learning new words is self-evident when we find ourselves at a loss to understand lexical items that were commonly used by past generations (colloquialisms) and by the current generation of which we are not members (slang).

The most important thing about words is that they have contain meaning. We perhaps lose this fact about words and allow people to say a lot without saying anything at all or permit their easy retraction with the excuse that what was, indeed, expressed was not what was intended. There is a remedy for this: think before you speak. This is more easily said than done for most of regret words we have used. If we are thoughtful, we will learn from our mistakes and become more precise about the words we do use.

I came across a movement ( called “Words Matter.” It proposes “being a practitioner of careful, thoughtful and deliberate positive communication.” The central idea of the movement is that words have power and that power should be for the good and not the bad. This movement has a lot to say to our current divisive environment, which often is a swirl of negativity, hateful words. Every once and awhile I am made aware of my own use of negative words, intended or not, when serendipity touches me. The other day, a receptionist was trying to find the right word to describe difficult customers. I suggested “weird”, but she rejected the word for another, “insensitive.” Her word was, I think, kinder.

Them’s fightin’ words is an expression that describes words that are threatening and injurious . Such words are libelous, obscene, lewd and profane and are used purposefully to cause a hurt. The Supreme Court ruled in 1942 that fighting words constitute “by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” (Chaplinsky v New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942) and therefore are not protected by the Constitution. The problem of fighting words substantiates the “Words Matter Movement” which makes us aware of the vileness of mean-spirited, negative, and insulting words. Such words are always testing the Supreme Court’s 1942 definition of fighting words. It seems that the bar is being raised higher and higher as the years pass, yet the Fighting Words Doctrine has never been overturned.

If you are interested in reading examples of what I personally consider to be injurious lewd language that are either protected or not protected by the First Amendment, please see the article, FIGHTING WORDS, by David L. Hudson Jr., First Amendment Center (Updated July of 2009) at the link below:

I hope that my thoughts about words say something to you. Afterall, we all use words to express ourselves. Yet not all words have to be spoken to one who is willing to really listen.

Published by Thomas

Retired from active priestly ministry in the Catholic Church; former Benedictine monk; francophile; Holocaust researcher; Delta One Million Miler; Ex-Patriated American to the Republic of Panama

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