Anyone who has learned a second language, or tried to, knows that it is one thing to learn basic grammar and vocabulary, but another thing entirely to learn the weight of the words one uses. Not all words are created equal; some carry considerably more power, more gravitas, than others. Learning one’s first language as a toddler is fraught with the same challenge. Consider the following story by Anne Lamott, from her book “Bird by Bird” (unedited!):
My son, Sam, at three and a half, had these keys to a set of plastic handcuffs, and one morning he intentionally locked himself out of the house. I was sitting on the couch reading the newspaper when I heard him stick his plastic keys into the doorknob and try to open the door. Then I heard him say, “Oh, shit”. My whole face widened, like the guy in Edvard Munch’s Scream. After a moment I got up and opened the front door.
“Honey,” I said, “what’d you just say?”
“I said, ‘Oh, shit,'” he said.
“But honey, that’s a naughty word. Both of us have absolutely got to stop using it. Okay?”
He hung his head for a moment, nodded, and said, “Okay, Mom”. Then he leaned forward and said confidentially, “But I’ll tell you why I said ‘shit’.” I said Okay, and he said, “Because of the fucking keys!”
There have been numerous occasions during my time in the Netherlands where I have sent a Dutch conversation on an unexpectedly wild ride, simply by choosing the wrong word when trying to get across my thoughts. I’ve said things I thought were plain enough, and technically correct, but because I was unaware of the weight or color of the word I was using, the conversation became like quicksand: “how do I get out of this alive?!”
There’s an Amsterdam pizza company that unabashedly uses English profanity to advertise it’s product: “D- – n Tasty!”, and lately “F – – – ing Good!”. Now I know these words have become more commonplace in general usage, but I still have a hard time buying pizza from a company that uses such weighty language so casually. Go on, call me old fashioned.
From the bits of US television I’ve seen lately it seems the word “God” has become almost a form of punctuation, and the phrase “OH my GOD!” a national mantra.
Some years ago I was asked to pick up an Indian missionary at the airport and deliver him to an address in Amsterdam. As we drove into town he gazed out the window and I heard him repeatedly saying under his breath “Sweet Jesus” and “Oh my God”. At first I was surprised that such a humble and holy man would use such flippant sounding phrases. But then I realized he was saying them because he really meant it! His heart was deeply touched by what he saw and he was saying these words over and over as a prayer, a groaning of his spirit speaking directly to a person he knew well.
He knew the weight of words.