Language

As I made my way out of Christianity and into the real world, it became important to me to shed the habits that no longer reflected my beliefs. Some things were easy, even pleasant to relinquish, stuff like reading the Old Testament, judging my neighbor, or trying to teach my scientist-child that Jonah really did live in the belly of a fish for three days. (Fail.) But there were other, more subtle habits that were harder to remove or replace. The Christian habit I have struggled most to let go of is language, peppering my everyday conversation with religious jargon.

First of all, does it even matter? What’s a little Christianese going to harm anyone, an I’m praying this or a thank God for that? On the other hand, I am proud to belong to a generation that is powerfully resisting language and icons that no longer reflect our ideals, manifesting in the removal of such offenses as Confederate statues and gender-specific work titles. It is a constant uphill battle to carefully refine our own integrity and reflect it in our culture, our art, and our language.

I spent some time dwelling on the importance of words. Words are powerful, and their implications often speak volumes. For example, the cringe-worthy beat a dead horse suggests that it’s useful and acceptable to beat a live horse. Or the seemingly benign actress, which originally had an unsavory connotation, having its roots in a time period when the profession was restricted to men and boys. There are also words that no longer accurately reflect our culture, such as derogatory terms that reflect racism in American history. I realized that it is the unspoken history behind language that truly speaks and can shape our society for the better or the worse. I decided to do my part to remove words that were irrelevant and misrepresentative of my moral code. I would start with the top dog, a sneaky little guy called Thank God.

Thank God is a useless interjection, often found in the middle of sentence. I caved and ate more pizza, but thank God I had my fat pants on. Sometimes it kicks off a sentence. (Please note: possible earworm ahead.) Thank God kids stopped walking around singing “Let it Go” all day. Or it can be a standalone wrap-up to a thought, like a gaudy artist’s superfluous flair. Pumpkin-flavored everything is back, starting today. Thank God. The phrase gives undue gratitude to a magic guy in the sky when things go well, or even when things go as they should, as in Thank God it’s Friday. I mean, if yesterday was Thursday…but whatever. I’m all about feeling gratitude. It’s a wonderful emotion and should be shared. It was an easy fix for me. I now replace every temptation to use the phrase thank God, with a simple thankfully. It works quite well.

A little trickier was I have faith that. I wrestled with this because, upon initial assessment, it felt more decisive and empowering than replacement phrases like here’s hoping, or fingers crossed. But no matter how I used it, the phrase misrepresented what I actually felt. I have faith that things will turn out well implied that I was trusting some supernatural force to work everything to my ultimate benefit. What I really meant was, I’m working hard to get through this, and I’m confident I’ll make the best of my situation. When I said I have faith that you’ll make the right decision, I appeared dismissive of someone’s anxiety over a decision, trusting that some spiritual entity had it all mapped out already. A simple whatever decision you make, I’m here to support you, changes the entire sentiment. With this phrase, I am acknowledging the person’s struggle, their right to make their own decision, and my commitment to stand by them. When I said I have faith that I won’t eat too much pizza, what I really meant was I’d better wear my fat pants. (See above.) It turns out that it has been worth the time and effort I’ve put into finding phrases that more precisely reflect who I am and what I believe. I am able to use my language to empower myself and those around me.

Just when I was feeling great about my intentional relinquishing of all things Christianese, someone sneezed.

Oh, the horror of an awkward post-sneeze silence! What would I say? What could I do?

Saying God bless you goes back to the early superstitious beliefs that evil spirits or the plague could overtake a person if they sneezed and that they needed God’s protection. In other words, saying God bless you to someone today means you are disregarding 2,000 years of medical advancements, the life work of scientists like Alexander Fleming, Edward Jenner, and Marie Curie, as well as the body’s incredible ability to heal itself, and suggesting that if God doesn’t step in after every single sneeze, the sneezer might be ravished by demons and deadly plagues. Somehow that feels more like a curse than a blessing!

I didn’t think divorcing God from bless you made enough of a splash. I tried my sister’s version, sorry you sneezed. I love it when she says it, but it didn’t feel authentic to me.  I wasn’t sorry they sneezed. Not at all. Sneezing feels good and rids the body of toxins (albeit into my space bubble, for which I might be somewhat sorry.) My daughter uses you scared me. But that’s because I sneeze very, very loudly. It didn’t seem appropriate to use that with the general public, what with having to explain why I say it. I wasn’t even sure why anything needed to be said. After all, I don’t jump in when strangers cough or burp to bestow random blessings on them. Was it the cultural norm, throughout the world, to acknowledge a sneeze?

I hopped on Google and found out that almost every language had a phrase to utter after a sneeze. Some were very religious, like the Bengali may Allah have mercy on you, the Mongolian may God forgive you, or Jesus in Catalan. Others take a more spiritually-neutral approach, like the Danish may it help, the Italian Health, and the Nepali may you live long. One thing is certain: something has to be said, or I will be little more than a cultural pariah.

How can I fill the silence after a sneeze, while truthfully reflecting my moral code? Do you have any suggestions for me? If so, please comment! Have a wonderful week, my readers.

 

18 thoughts on “Language

  1. I’ve gone through a recent deconversion, too, and I’m struggling with the same thing. It’s easy for me to not tell people I’m praying for them, but hard to stop saying, “I’m thankful that…”

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  2. I have recently resorted to saying ‘bloody hell’ when I sneeze. It would be completely inappropriate to say it to someone else when they sneeze though. I am still on the lookout though, I may end up with a better alternative.

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  3. In The Netherlands we say ‘Gezondheid!’ meaning eh…wait, will look it up…you wish someone ‘good health’. Hm, how to transpose that in a fine English term?

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  4. Oh, I love that! How pragmatic!

    I’d be interested in hearing how the mentality around religion/spirituality/atheism works in Europe. I’ve heard there’s quite a different approach than there is in the Americas. Someday we’ll have to converse about it 🙂

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  5. I think the only reason that you feel an “awkward silence” is because of the expectation of habit. For centuries, people have “said something” after another person sneezes, (originally, as you point out, for a very silly superstition) and so if you say nothing, you feel like you have neglected to pay a social due. Market checkout clerks can risk losing their jobs for not saying “Have a nice day” as customers leave with their groceries, and most of us as customers feel an obligation to say “Thank you,” or “You too” in reply. Those are not based on absurd superstition. They’re about human caring. It may have become ritualized to the point of being somewhat mechanical and less genuine, but still, it is rooted in a social good.

    But by not “saying something” after someone sneezes, you have not failed to pay a social debt. Screw that. That’s not your debt, it’s nobody’s debt. I have seen many long online discussions among atheists who try to figure out “what to say after someone else sneezes” that isn’t the standard “hooray for the local god” rubber stamp. After lurking for a while, I finally suggest “say nothing, because nothing needs to be said.” That’s when the real awkward silence can be heard even in the text of a blog. The suggestion that a dumb habit does not have to be replaced by another dumb habit seems to stun people.

    You have given some good examples of how conscientiously you are reexamining the deeper meanings and history of habitual things that we say, questioning their appropriateness, and ridding your speech of the negative or absurd ones. Question now the entire idea of having to say something at all after a sneeze, since feeling socially obligated to say anything still echoes back to that ridiculous superstition. Don’t even give it that much acknowledgement. Maybe you said it partially in jest, but I really don’t think you’ll be treated as a pariah. I think the custom is already going out of style. I often hear nothing said by anyone in a crowd when someone sneezes.

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    1. Thank you, Richard, for your thoughtful reply. I look forward to hearing more from you in the future, and gleaning from the wisdom you have on these topics! And yes, I have been leaving the silence after the sneeze….

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  6. Hi Danica,
    I’m making my way through all of your blog posts. 🙂 I agree with JZ – you’re an engaging writer with an authentic voice; I’m enjoying my read.
    I’ve said, “Gesundheit” for as long as I can remember and I have no idea where it came from. . . I guess that’s what happens after a certain age. (Thankfully David spelled the word b/c I would have had to look it up!)

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    1. Thank you so much for reading! I’m glad you’re enjoying these anecdotes. I have learned a lot through blogging, as well. On a funny note, I now say “achoo” when someone sneezes. If they ask, I say, “I’m sympathizing with your sneeze, sans divine intervention.” It sounds like, ‘Bless you,” but it’s comical and it gives me micro-opportunities to share my opinions (when appropriate, of course.)

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