The time: earlier this year. The occasion: a post-operative tonsillectomy visit with my son’s ENT. She was telling me what to watch out for as his scar sites healed. “You might see some . . . you know? kind-of-thing,” she explained. And then she just looked at me, expectantly.
“Nnnn-no,” I wanted to say. “No, I do not know what kind of thing. Because you . . . you did not say anything!” Grateful to have the printed materials from the hospital, I just bundled up my son and got out of that strange, vague place where they put you to sleep and remove parts of your body kind of thing.
Undergraduates ... seemed to be shifting the burden of communication from speaker to listener. Ambiguity, evasion, and body language, such as air quotes—using fingers as quotation marks to indicate clichés—were transforming college English into a coded sign language in which speakers worked hard to avoid saying anything definite. I called it Vagueness.
Not only frivolous undergrads, but professionals of every age speak in this juvenile, coded slang:
[T]hey saw Vagueness not as slang but as mainstream English. At long last, it dawned on me: Vagueness was not a campus fad or just another generational raid on proper locution. It was a coup. Linguistic rabble had stormed the grammar palace. The principles of effective speech had gone up in flames.
Vagueness isn’t only irritating to the rigid and elite—it’s bad news for us all. See how handy vagueness can be, and how difficult to combat: It’s disguised as something harmless. It begins life as something that is normal for children, and all too easily turns into habit for adults. Some of those who fight against vagueness truly are petty snobs looking for an easy way to condemn others, which makes it easy for the Terminally Vague to assume that everyone who craves specificity is a petty snob.
And worst of all, vagueness is everywhere, a hydra with a million indistinct heads. And the next thing you know, doctors are telling patients to watch out for . . . you know? Kind of thing. A trusting patient could be found hours later, lying dead in a pool of his own ambiguity.
Most vagueness comes from carelessness or laziness, but vagueness is at its most dangerous when it’s used intentionally. As Matt Archbold points out, it’s no coincidence that the media says “fertilized egg” for something that already has a proper and specific scientific name: a human zygote, and then a human embryo. Same goes for that inexcusably archaic notion that an unborn child is, at any point in his existence, a “blob of cells” or a “clump of tissue”—and yet, otherwise educated people still use and teach these terms, despite what far more specific and accurate scientific information exists.
Why? Because in vagueness there is safety. You can do whatever you want with someone called “blob.”
Words are important. Specificity is important. Accuracy isn’t some persnickity hobby for people with too many advanced degrees—it’s a matter of life and death. And this is why the Church (who, like so many mothers, will only tolerate nonsense for so long) is so gloriously right to put so much effort into the new translation of the Roman Missal—a translation which, in its increased accuracy, is more beautiful.
That’s the great news: More specific doesn’t mean more dry! As Charlotte Hays explains,
At present, Catholics acknowledge their unworthiness before receiving Communion with the words “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” But with the new translation, Catholics will begin to say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” The second is closer to the words attributed to the centurion in the New Testament.
Closer, more specific . . . and more profound. As Anthony Esolen says of the team who wrote the 1970’s English translation:
According to their own testimony, the translation they came up with is “faithful but not literal.” That should have made people wary. When one translates poetry, the literal is especially to be attended to, since it is the literal that is the vehicle for whole constellations of meaning.
How lucky we are to be Catholics! How astonishingly fortunate to be seated safely in the one ship that’s moving slowly forward on a definite, specific path, rather than wallowing uncertainly in the shallows of vagueness. We should not fear the literal, or shy away from the specific. The God who can number every hair on our head does not paint with broad strokes, and neither should we.