The Diminution of Language and Dumbing Down of Relationships

Rev. Michael P. Orsi
By Rev. Michael P. Orsi | April 6, 2011 | 4:02 AM EDT

How we express ourselves to others reveals our perception of reality. Appreciation of status, for example, is suggested in forms of address and by the words and phrases we use. There is a current trend in our speech, however, that lends itself to minimizing human relationships. This is detrimental to society and individuals since it confuses roles, endangers boundaries, and leads to inappropriate thinking, feelings and behaviors.     

Three contemporary examples come to mind.     

In recent years the term for one’s parents has become my “mom and my dad.” In former times this would have been considered baby talk. Traditional maturity always demanded that when referencing parents the proper designation after childhood was my “mother and father.” This connoted a growing degree of independence. Only in private discourse was “mom and dad” retained as the familiar address usually replacing mommy and daddy.     

The current identification of progenitors is indicative of a growing problem in which offspring deem themselves to be perpetually dependent children. It also creates over-protective parents who inappropriately intervene in the lives of their sons and daughters.

How many valuable lessons and skills are delayed or never attained because mom and dad took up junior’s cause in a conflict with a teacher, coach or peer or bailed him out of a poor financial choice which he should have handled himself?

Today, children are not being given the opportunity to negotiate their own way through life and have become perpetually dependent. The large number of adult children now living at home and being subsidized by their parents attests to this.     

This baby talk has also lulled society into making accommodations for adult children. For example, Obamacare’s allowance for offspring up to 26 years of age to remain on their parent’s health insurance does not encourage personal responsibility, sacrifice or even force them to work for over one-third of their projected life span. The “my mom and dad” syndrome is disastrous! It makes no distinction between three, thirteen and thirty.     

Secondly, the traditional sign-off “good-bye” at the close of a phone conversation or when parting has now been replaced with “I love you.” Once this most intimate of phrases was reserved for special people on special occasions, usually at the most tender, if not vulnerable moments, in their life. It is now so frequently and loosely bandied about that its power has been greatly diminished.     

People in all types of relationships now use the phrase quite freely. Is it possible that a good deal of the break-down for our appreciation of intimacy is because these words which were formerly used to express deep emotion and commitment have been degraded to mean everything or nothing at all?

Perhaps the frequent hookups (sexual activity) among college students, now reported at 72% and “the declining desire to make relationship commitments in early life” (USA Today, 3-31-11) can be traced to the cheapening discourse which had given license to engage in less than reflective “love making.”     

The third example of the diminution of language has come by way of the animal rights lobby. In the past when someone wanted a pet they would say, “I am going to get a dog or a cat.” Today, the popular phrase is “I am going to adopt a dog or cat.” This is a mighty leap from the owner-animal understanding of the past.

To adopt has the connotation of making a pet a part of a family. The change is profound! It puts the animal on par with other family members who were always deemed to be of people related by blood, marriage or adoption. Adoption in itself had legal, social and even spiritual implications with rights and responsibilities presumed for both the adopters and adoptee. By including animals in this time-honored institution we elevate animals to a status of equality with humans.     

A few examples will suffice to make the point. In recent years I have been receiving more and more Christmas cards featuring people’s pets. Cute? No! In former times people would feature their children. It was perceived as an attempt at some meaningful sharing of the sender’s life with the recipient. What is the pet’s picture expressing? This is who I am? This is how much I value our relationship?     

Consistent with this is the now common practice of giving animals human names. There was a time when there was no doubt that Fido was a dog or Boots a cat. Now, on any given day one can hear someone fussing over or calling out to Alexander, Sophia, or Tim and not be sure if they are addressing a human or an animal.

I recently read an obituary which after having listed numerous living relatives ended by saying, “She is survived by her three cats, Natalie, Peter and Nicky.” What an insult to the woman’s sister, nieces, nephews and friends! Perhaps it is the politically correct term of “adoption” for animals that make people think people and pets are inter-changeable?     

Words and phrases are pregnant with meaning and have implications. To use language, a faculty unique to humans, in an improper way or context causes inappropriate thinking which leads to inappropriate actions. It confuses our sacred social constructs and diminishes the special relationships that form good human beings and healthy institutions like marriage and the family.

Words do have consequences. Perhaps we should pay more attention to how we use them.