Our ability to speak, not just communicate but truly use language, is one of those things that sets us apart from the rest of creation. John's gospel speaks of Christ as "The Word", and the image of language is thus used to convey God's rationalist, creativity and love rolled into one concept: speech. God speaks the world, and because of God's infinite power, that which He says is.
As creatures made in the image of God, our speech is similarly powerful and creative. And yet, as fallen creatures we are endlessly inventive in our ability to mis-use the gifts that we have been given.
What do we have the power of speech for?
At root, I think, to convey the truth. Sometimes we do this in a straight-forward way. Other times we say things that are not strictly true, in an attempt to evoke the truth. Writing fiction is, it seems to me, at root a truth-telling activity. We tell stories in order to get across a truth more clearly or more powerfully than a simple non-fiction recitation might be able to do.
And yet, saying things that aren't true to evoke a truth can also lead us into dangerous waters very quickly. Hyperbole is defined as "extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally", and as such it should be no surprise that we say things, when speaking hyperbolically, that we do not mean. That in itself is not a problem, until one says something hyperbolically which does mean something, but not what you mean.
This is something of a failing of mine -- a someone who never shuts up.
Five years ago, MrsDarwin and I had taken on the family responsibility of moving into my paternal grandmother's house in order to make provide live-in care for her in her last days. Not long after we moved in, she had a fall -- trying to cross the room quickly using her canes instead of her walker -- and broke her arm. For a woman in her early 90s, already in delicate health, such an injury can cause a fatal decline, and indeed things quickly got very difficult. One morning, when she's been refusing to take any of her medications for a day and her anti-depressants had worn off, she became intractable during the bustle as I was trying to get out the door for my 1.5 hour commute. (Moving in with her had taken me from being five miles from work to 60 miles of traffic.) She wouldn't eat her breakfast, wouldn't take her pills, and was screaming accusations that I didn't really work: MrsDarwin just kept me out of sight all day so that I couldn't talk to her. Twenty minutes of extreme frustration ensued, until we managed to get her pills (including the anti-depressant) into her by means of mashing them up with sugar and mixing them into pudding. It made me late getting on the road, and I fumed all the way in through a drive that stretched longer than usual because of my lateness.
At work, I must have still looked angry, because my boss asked me what was wrong. "If the old lady doesn't chill out and shut up," I growled dramatically, "I'm going to kill her." After which I described the morning's travails -- exaggerating since as I found myself telling of my woes they sounded rather petty.
None of which I would recall -- except that she died in her sleep early the next morning. When I called in to tell my boss I wouldn't be in that day, because I was dealing with arrangements and family stuff, I couldn't help remembering my intemperate words, and perhaps he did to, because he asked: "She died? It sounded like she was pretty vigorous yesterday..."
You would think, that having something like that to remember, I would know better than to say things that I don't mean. Especially things that imply a carelessness towards life. Yet I'm often not as careful as I should be. For example, the other day, when trying to emphasize the point that a couple of particular Southerners I'd dealt with in the past exuded a sense of privilege, and assumed that there would always be plentiful black "hired help" around, I came out with: "Whenever I go visit them I come away thinking that Sherman didn't kill enough of those folks."
What made that kind of idiotic statement come to mind I can't really say -- other than that Sherman was the first figure that came to mind when trying to make a "I thought we fought a war over this and defeated those attitudes" point. But it was a stupid thing to say. And stupid not only because it is offensive, but because it's not true. Of all the things that conceivably have kept the racial divide from being so great in our country, more of General Sherman's tactics is not exactly high on the list.
Speech is a gift, and it has a purpose. When we allow ourselves to forget that purpose and use it only as a toy, we injure ourselves, and insult or obscure the truth.
Xenophon's Anabasis, Book IV
1 hour ago