Author: Marilyn McEntyre
Publishing Date: May 11, 2021
Pages: 248 (Paperback)
Here in the center of 2021, we are emerging from—and continuing into—one of the most turbulent periods in American history. We now have many overused words in our awareness, such as “unprecedented,” “new normal,” and “uncertain times.” Despite a substantial range of viewpoints on the words themselves and on their associated issues, a seemingly universal sentiment appeared more frequently this past year, namely that people are tired of the negativity and the arguing, no matter the issue. Two years ago, the social marketing giant Mention found negativity in social media has steadily been increasing1 , and just this past October, Pew Research indicated that 64% of the U.S. population views the media as having a negative effect.2 Other recent sources (such as Fortune 3 and Psychology Today 4 ) also see a general trend toward overall pessimism in the past year.
In the midst of all this negativity, Marilyn McEntyre presents a strategy to combat the misuse and abuse of words, a strategy filled with gentleness, humor, and optimism. Her book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (an update from the previous 2009 edition), presents not only the problems facing our language here in 2021, but also ways to propagate the often-underused skill of speaking both in truth and in grace. As she says in her introduction, the art of just speaking with each other, the ability to carry out a “conversation was understood to be a life-sustaining practice, a blessing, and a craft to be cultivated for the common good.” This agricultural metaphor occurs often in this book, with a central point being our need to be good stewards of language.
Stewards of language. An interesting idea in itself, isn’t it? The idea of stewardship is often connected to money, property, time, or even talents, but to tie it to our use of words is a challenging wake-up call for how we speak and listen in today’s world. If we take this idea seriously, there is no such thing as a neutral statement, a phrase like “I’m just saying” provides no excuse for offensive ideas, and “They’re just words; they don’t mean anything” becomes an outright lie. Stewardship of language means we must develop and hone our reading skills, develop accurate speaking habits, cultivate more effective listening behaviors, and in short, become intentional makers and doers of words.
If for nothing else, this book is valuable for McEntyre’s very obvious love of words which permeates every chapter. As she presents each of her 12 strategies on improving our language stewardship, her appreciation for words becomes a bedrock for the whole “why” of the book. Language can be beautiful, and she clearly savors rich words that communicate worlds of meaning in just a few letters. Her many examples of both effective and ineffective word use together weave an impressive tapestry of evidence to support this central theme.
McEntyre draws attention to many aspects of good communication at the same time, as well as paying specific homage to particular subjects individually. For example, as much as she loves words, her final chapter is entitled, “Cherish Silence,” which provides another highly fitting commentary on today’s world; as we sift through billions of words and ideas, sometimes the best solution to misuse of language is to say nothing. She summarizes this idea by saying, “We need that challenge, and the best of our artists offer it, finding inventive ways to open up and clear interior spaces, weaving words around what cannot be said, ringing the silences we avoid with chant, plainsong, the ding of a Tibetan chime, giving shape to the silence so that we may recognize it not as a void or abyss but as a place to lie down in green pastures and be restored.”
These words show again how this is a book primarily about restoring a sense, an appreciation, a deep consideration for language. It advises on how we can guard words from abuse and use words to provide sense to our lives, enrich our world, and effect healing. This curative effect of language is not an abstract ideal for McEntyre—it is a living reality. In one especially telling section, she references several Psalms in which “tasting” and “eating” are linked to words, an attitude she desires for us to reacquire in the 21st century. David writes in Psalm 119, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (NIV) McEntyre encourages her readers to consider such a regeneration potential of words, both in speaking and in listening, and to see words as a source of sustenance.
Nearly 2000 years ago, the poet Virgil wrote his famous Georgics, an extended treatise on the beauty and goodness of nature as compared to the ugliness and pettiness of human institutions. In some ways, McEntyre seems to follow this model, but instead of combatting inane politics with a simple agricultural life, she carries out her fight with a loving cultivation of words. The enemy of language is an abundance of polluted and depleted words. Such a reservoir is inadequate for true, effective, empathic public debate. As she states, when we lose the “subtlety, clarity, and reliability of language, we become more vulnerable to crude exercises of power.”
The book can be viewed as a sort of “How-To” manual, in this case, how to improve our collective stewardship of language. McEntyre’s purpose ultimately is not to ascribe blame but to promote conversation and community. To this end, she invites us to help each other by forming “reading groups, discussion groups, and Web sites where information can be shared and pondered among folks who trust one another’s purpose.” A healthy “farming” of language is crucial for the kind of communal collaboration needed for our ongoing search for truth. Her book reminds us that words are important, words have power, and words can actually hurt.
Following McEntyre’s advice on developing stewardly language in the middle of a media-saturated landscape seems akin to trying to grow a rooftop garden in the middle of a harsh urban environment. It’s difficult, and it can be an overwhelming task, but ultimately the oasis of life stands defiantly against the gray, dusty landscape to provide nourishment for all those around. This book reminds us that language and community are intimately connected, and preserving or protecting one naturally has similar effects on the other. For all who would be stewards of language, reserve some time to read this remarkable book, take McEntyre’s 12 lessons to heart, and watch your own garden grow.