When Language Becomes Worthless

I’ve observed in the last few years a shift in our communication.  Now, I’m not so sure it’s only been in the last few years (others would probably tell me it’s been longer) but I have certainly noticed it as it has invaded my circles.

Worthless language takes many forms.  I have observed that people say things that don’t actually say much at all.  In other words, if I have to ask you what you mean several times – over one statement – it is likely that what you said either was profoundly unclear or unintelligible. Now, of course the third option could be that I’m clueless (that’s always an option).  Let’s assume that I’m not.  (We have to assume something…)

Worthless language can be crude and curse-filled.  In that case, that language, while descriptive, is usually not helpful in advancing dialogue.

What I’m talking about in terms of useless language is user-defined language.  In other words, using words whose meaning is ultimately subjective or user-defined: it means what I say it means.

This language, as far as I’ve observed, is most prevalent when words that were previously used to describe physical ailments, and were at one time metaphorically used to describe our inner existence, crossed over into literal, inner descriptors.


Here’s a popular one: “I’m hurt.”  What the speaker means is not something physical and measurable (like the yellow jacket stings I received yesterday) but some kind of inner experience that only the speaker knows about.

“I’m wounded”

“You’re unsafe”

“This relationship is unhealthy”

“That’s abuse”

“You hurt my feelings”

Each of these phrases depicts an inner, subjective experience that defies external definition.  In other words, there’s no real way to test, measure, or gage what the speaker really means.  And we all like it that way.

A problem with user-defined language is that once it is spoken, its meaning is both a secret and controlled by the user.  I have to figure out what you mean and if I don’t I can’t ever do anything to please you.  Maybe vindictive speakers like it that way; most probably don’t realize what’s happening.  But for the hearer, it is a kind of verbal servitude – you own me because you’ve used words that I’ve heard before but whose meaning you’ve defined.

I’m both stuck and beholden.

It didn’t use to be this way.  Formerly, language, while usable in different arenas had specific functions.  Now, those meanings have all been conflated – combined, condensed, melted-together.  And we’re all stuck.  If I’m hurt or you’re unhealthy, we’re slaves to each other until we figure out what the blazes that all means.

I have a better idea.  How about we don’t give a “tinker’s rip” about each others language and we agree instead on a common tongue.  When we talk about our inner experiences – what we think and value and believe – why don’t we adopt a time tested vocabulary and start from there?

The Bible.  The Bible provides for us both descriptive and prescriptive words.  It both describes and explains our inner experiences.  If, for example,  I experience a hardship at your hands, I can tell you that:

“I believe that your words were full of wrath and that you sinned against me” (see Colossians 3:8).

“You were slandering me to my friend and you sinned against me” (see same verse)

“You lied with your words and you sinned against me” (see Colossians 3:9)

“Your speech was obscene and it was offensive; you sinned against me” (see Colossians 3:8)

“Your words were harsh and unloving; you didn’t have my best interests in mind” (see Ephesians 4:15 and Philippians 2:4)

You see, when we use an external, neutral language that both describes and prescribes, things can happen. I can be held accountable and you can get some justice and mercy.  Do we not see that our culture’s current use of formerly physical language is ultimately unhelpful?  Throwing around terms like “abuse” and “safe” and “health” just don’t get us anywhere with each other.  (We’ve seen this for years in the ambiguity of pro-abortion argumentation standing on phrases like the “health of the mother” and then filling into “health” whatever ones wants.)

If you tell me that I’m not “safe” I have no idea what to do except what you tell me.  But, what if what you are telling me to do to be “safe” is contrary to the law of God?  In other words, what if you tell me that I must “stay away so that you can be safe” when in fact the Bible says that I must draw near to reconcile?  What do we do then?

When it comes to the language of blessing and the language of conflict, we cannot let ourselves devolve into subjective, user-defined, worthless speech.  Instead, we must humble ourselves and use the language of Another.  Then we will be able to assign a universal meaning and maybe we can reconcile.

One thought on “When Language Becomes Worthless

  • AMAZING insight! I’ve never thought of this before but you are exactly right!! This has been very convicting for me as a stay-at-home mother with 4 very young (3 of which are very verbal) children. When I am frustrated (Biblically called “angry”) my words are harsh and very subjective and I feel briefly vindicated before the guilt (Biblically called conviction) sets in. I have sinned against my children and the Lord. I am wrong.
    This is a very helpful perspective and is very timely. Thank you Gabe!

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