Guest Author: Seth Kaplan
We all have pet peeves about language. Words help to structure how we express ourselves and how we interpret the thoughts expressed by others. For me, though, certain words and terms rankle more than others. These are the words I hate.
For years, the word that made my skin crawl was comorbid. Ugh! Just typing the word makes my stomach churn. As is often the case with medical terms, it is a collective word designed to be both technical and benign.
After all, one does not want to hear one’s doctor lean over conspiratorially and whisper in one’s ear, ”Jeez, Dave, you’ve got four things going on in addition to your chronic pain. You’re totally screwed up!”
A New Phrase
Lately, though, a new phrase has supplanted the word above. My (possibly sensitive) linguistic sensibilities register offense at “thoughts and prayers.” You too? Why have we heard these words so much over the last decade or two, and why do they grate? IMHO, the cause with the greatest influence is mass shootings, especially at institutions of learning like schools and college campuses. Ironic, no?
I learned today that the phrase “thoughts and prayers” goes back a lot further than I would have guessed. A book from 1821 has this: “Masters and seamen, as you are about to leave us for the season, I trust we shall follow you in our thoughts and prayers.”
And this is from a letter of condolence to a mother whose son has died printed in a book from 1877:
“I wish it were in my power to do something for you. I had hoped to have you with us at our holiday season, but your great affliction prevented my sending for you. You are continually in our thoughts and prayers. How sad the days must have been to you. When the year rolls round I hope you may feel like coming to us, and letting us try to comfort you more than we can by letter.”
In each of these instances, the phrase shows genuine concern and a closeness to prayer as an appeal to a higher power. If only that were the case today. “Thoughts and prayers” has gone beyond trite to pro forma; i.e., it would be noticed only by its absence. For example, speaking about yesterday’s shooting in Flagstaff, AZ, U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) released the following statement:
“My thoughts and prayers are with families of the person who was killed and the three others who were wounded . . .”. President Obama said it best during his press conference on October 8th: “We have become numb.” Can’t be put more clearly than that.
Not Just Euphemisms
The question remains: Why do people use words and phrases that are empty of meaning? Some might argue for euphemisms but I think this is more than saying “She passed” instead of “She died” or “She dropped dead.”
It is also different than the Victorian era bowdlerization of language when people of a certain class referred to piano “limbs” rather than “legs” so as not to damage feminine sensibilities and stir up prurient desires.
I have a different theory. Phrases like “thoughts and prayers” are intellectual shorthand. They obviate the need for deep thought and deep emotion when events like mass shootings occur. It is presumed that when elected officials, clergymen, and others utter these words that they are invoking a deeper and higher power that can spread a blanket of caring over the afflicted. In a microcosmic sense, say a priest ministering to a parishioner, that is possible.
But, on a macro scale, all personalization is removed. When President Obama observed in his 10/8 press conference, “Prayer is not enough,” he was echoing Mark Twain, who wrote that “faith is something you believe in that you know ain’t true.”
Until we acknowledge the need for plain, direct, and unambiguous speaking, we will continue to falter in our search for solutions to myriad problems. Why? Because weak expressions of hope or intent lead to weak efforts.