Introductory Note:

I’ve known some good talkers in my life, and some fine listeners. I’ve spent much of my time over the past decades reading writers who nourish and challenge and change me. My prayers of gratitude include those whose words have opened doors and shed light into dark places and lifted my heart when it was heavy and offered me moments of “radical amazement.” When I hear the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” I bristle. It depends on the picture. It depends on the words. Some words “flame out like shining from shook foil.”


Writing Caring for Words gave me a chance to return to writers who have nurtured me and explore “the joy of a graceful sentence.” It allowed me to reflect on the way words connect us to each other and to the Spirit who speaks forth in all creation—in birdsong and whalesong and fungal webs and in the poems and paragraphs we exchange with astonishing, apparently endless, invention. Being invited to talk with Nate about the book on the Renovaré Podcast gave me a chance to bring those reflections into the present moment when the stridency of public discourse has reached a new pitch. I’m a professor of literature, not a professional linguist or theologian or political scientist. I’m also a citizen of a troubled nation at a precarious time, and a person of faith hoping, in conversation with others who travel the way with me, to use words as instruments of understanding and vehicles of love.

I offer here a few brief excerpts from chapters in Caring for Words hoping they will in some small way help foster the kinds of conversations we need to keep having.

Marilyn McEntyre
February 2022

Excerpt from Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies

From Love Words”

When a word falls into disuse, the experience goes with it. We are impoverished not only by the loss of a precise descriptor, but by the atrophy and extinction of the very thing it describes. Think about grand old words like proper, prudent, sensible, noble, honorable, and merry. Have you ever heard a friend returning from a party describe how merry it was? Unless you’re very, very old, I suspect not. The word survives in American usage almost exclusively as a vestigial reminder of certain obligatory feelings of good cheer around Christmastime. But merriment itself seems to belong to a place beyond the looking glass — something we can imagine wistfully as we step into the world of Dickens but can’t bring back into the milieu of the contemporary cocktail party. Merriment seems to evoke two conditions of community life we have largely lost: a common sense of what there is to laugh about, and a certain mental health … that understands darkness but doesn’t succumb to cynicism. Merriment has fallen into near extinction by a disuse that both signals and hastens the demise of such feelings. Wendell Berry’s writing offers examples of language reclaimed and put to good use for contemporary purposes. Without pretension he retrieves words like provident, kinsmen, courtship, mirth, and chastisement.

From Tell the Truth”

Precision means attending to the ways the word is used, not merely to some notion of how it should be used. It means humbly inquiring what the user means, and then listening. Paradoxically, precision also requires leaving some play in the matter of definition and negotiating precise meaning as discussion proceeds. We may have to accept for the sake of argument” a user’s definition of socialism” or acceptable deviation” or appropriate precautions” with which we don’t fully agree in order to create a context of understanding that enables truth to be spoken, heard, and acted on.

Precision also requires attention to process.… It is hard to think clearly about process in an environment where most of us are surrounded with products we did not participate in planting, harvesting, designing, manufacturing, transporting, or marketing. Indeed, the processes by which things come to us are often deliberately hidden or left unmentioned so as not to draw attention to the less savory byproducts of process like polluted waterways, abusive labor practices, carbon emissions, pesticide poisoning, cruelty to animals, insider trading. A precise use of the term cost would include all of the above. We need, I think, to enlarge our understanding of cost” to take into account Thoreau’s famous definition: I count the cost of a thing in terms of how much of life I have to give to obtain it.”

From Don’t Tolerate Lies”

If we purchase food and other products whose processing or manufacture involves unethical use of resources or human labor, our participation in those systems is not ethically neutral. If we boycott or protest unjust practices, we may not stop the practices, but we add to what may become a critical mass of resistance and, in however modest a way, support the change we hope for. This seems like fairly obvious reasoning. What is less obvious is the extension of this reasoning to language practices. The analogy may carry more weight if we consider specifically what we all stand to lose when lies are tolerated. Lies that make their way into policy decisions, campaigns, and marketing strategies erode the social contract that enables us all to count on what we’ve called professional ethics, business ethics, and the commitments that public servants make when they take oaths of office.

I’m not naïve enough to think there ever was a time when public office was free of calculated misrepresentations, broken promises, and organized deceptions. What has changed is both the scale of such offenses and the attitude of the public toward them. Tolerance may not be the right term. It may simply be passivity.

From Read Well”

Consider … how good reading involves attitudes and predispositions: consent, permission, forgiveness, relinquishment, empathy, resistance, compromise. What do you have to forgive Hemingway to get the gift that he offers? His machismo? His anti-Semitism? What do you need to consent to in order to read The Sound and the Fury on its terms? To let go of your usual strategies of sense-making so you can enter the mind of a thirty-three-year-old idiot? To see an obnoxious, hateful, bitter man in terms of his pain? To recognize the occasional nobility that has arisen out of oppression your own people have inflicted or suffered? What assumptions or expectations do you need to release in order to get anything at all out of Finnegan’s Wake? Some notion of what a story is? Dependence on the conventions of continuity, plot, and character? What do you have to resist in order to maintain an appropriate critical or aesthetic distance on Lolita? Or on Johnny Got His Gun? How do you decide what’s worth reading?

Three very basic questions I like to ask students as they embark on a new novel are these: What does this work invite you to do? What does it require of you? What does it not let you do? … We will be addressed and changed, if we read well. We will be challenged and confronted and convicted and offended, bothered, unsettled, and sometimes bored — and even boredom has its uses as preparation for a deeper level of engagement, though more often it’s a sign of sloth.

From Practice Poetry”

Indeed, there are good reasons not to engage in the practice of poetry. Poetry is not profitable. There’s a great deal of bad poetry out there that really is a waste of time. Poetry takes quality time that for most of us is a limited commodity. And many of us, alas, suffered the malpractice of some English teacher who made the work of reading or writing poetry into drudgery. We need to find those teachers and rehabilitate them.

The reasons to read poetry take longer to articulate. The most persuasive, if one is willing to entertain it, is that reading and writing poetry are survival skills. If we learn the skills involved in reading closely, attentively, imaginatively, if we understand the demands of a poem and respond to them, we are better equipped to negotiate flexibly, distinguish what is authentic from what is false, and make discerning decisions.

From Play”

Play comes from loving life, and play with words comes from loving language. Montaigne, one of the more playful writers I encountered in my undergraduate years … coined the term essai (which simply means an attempt or a trial) for the little thought pieces that have since become a genre unto themselves. His writing has the delightful exuberance of someone who went through life saying, in effect, like E. M. Forster, How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?”1 Writing, for him, was a way of thinking aloud and trying things out.

The idea of writing as a process of playing around with words gets largely lost in environments where writing is treated as a commodity. In the face of deadlines, word counts, and resumés to fatten, ten blank pages don’t readily present themselves to the imagination as play space. So, as a writing instructor who wants to encourage fruitful play, I look for language that might restore vitality to the process. Play with this idea. See where it takes you. Give it a shot. See how many ways of putting it you can come up with. Try it out. Spin it out. Play it out. See how it feels.” The point about feeling deserves a bit of emphasis.

From Cherish Silence”

The silence we practice is one fairly reliable measure of the distance between effective words and ineffectual babble. We encourage glibness by incessant focus on productivity and by the utilitarian idea that time, space, and the airwaves must be filled.” We churn out reports and memos, meet and discuss and debate and assess and strategize in schools and corporations and even in churches without generally making explicit the need for silent reflection as a vital part of those processes. Even so-called retreat weekends — when colleagues gather apart from the workplace, take off their ties and silk scarves, don their jeans, and head for the woods — are often more like brainstorming sessions or extended business meetings. The skill and clarity and trust it takes actually to choose and cultivate corporate silence is rare. In a culture that practices it so little — in which, like fallow soil, it is often misperceived as a waste of time, a resource that could be turned to profit — we hardly know what to do with it. And so our conversation suffers in the same way that our crops suffer from exhausted soil that has been allowed no time for replenishment.

Related Podcast

  1. E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, Abinger edition (London: Edward Arnold, 1974). ↩︎

Excerpted from Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, 2nd ed by Marilyn McEntyre ©2021 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Photo by Aliis Sinisalu on Unsplash

Text First Published May 2021 · Last Featured on February 2022