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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Wielding words

It’s important to pick the right ones

Wielding words

(Penny Bradfield/Fairfax Media/Getty Images)

I don’t keep close records, so I can’t tell you exactly how many of you readers objected when in last summer’s Aug. 20 issue I referred to Fox News as a “sleazy” outfit. Many of you protested. How, you said, could I possibly diminish the contribution of the only network that gives conservatives a fair shake?

But I wasn’t referring to Fox’s news coverage, which I tend overall to think is both balanced and accurate. I chose the word “sleazy” because I knew how offensive Fox’s image was to so many women—and understandably so. Again and again, members of the Fox team chose the low road with their off-color humor and allusions.

Now, of course, the departure of CEO Roger Ailes and veteran newsman Bill O’Reilly—both for apparent sleazy behavior—suggests that maybe “sleazy” was the right word after all. But the wrong four words right now would certainly be, “I told you so!” Instead, let’s use that bit of news from Fox to reflect on the whole exercise of how we choose and use words.

I’ve said here before that when God called on Adam, very early in the history of the world and of human experience, to name all the animals, our Creator was in fact putting on a dual demonstration. On the one hand, He was showing off the penultimate aspect of His incredibly imaginative handiwork. Adam must have been stunned—even in his early, unfallen condition. But on the other hand, God was also apparently eager to show Adam the critical importance of language and words as tools for stewardship of the new creation. To this very day, both are wonderful gifts from God—the creation itself, and the words He gives to describe, analyze, understand, develop, and enhance it.

Words help us crystallize the blur of our experience.

Words by their nature are intended to make distinctions. That’s why you need so many of them. For Adam, aardvark meant one thing, antelope another, ant still another, and anteater something radically different—especially for ants. It’s not at all clear that Adam, at that early date, had to distinguish between cocker spaniels and German shepherds, but at least the pattern was established that God was providing a means to sort things out.

Indeed, as my wife reminded me years ago, the whole work of creation involved this process. God started by sorting out light from darkness, evening from morning, and sky from waters. After a busy week, He was still sorting out male from female, and teaching Adam the wonderful importance of going on and on with a never-ending, word-by-word description of such distinctions. To this day, it is key to the human experience to use words to make distinctions.

Let me use a few words here, in fact, to make a distinction between words and other art forms. Great paintings, trumpet concertos, ballet performances, and even baseball games are typically powerful not because of the specificity of what they portray, but because of their ambiguity. “I see this in it,” says one observer—but the observer’s companion sees something totally different. Such is the wonder of ambiguity.

Words too can be ambiguous, but such ambiguity is only a subset of their chief function. Words in the end are meant to distinguish, to sort out, to help us say, “This, not that.” It’s the reason, after all, that we run for the dictionary. It is also why we crave written critiques after visiting the art museum, going to a concert, watching a ballet—or going to a baseball game. Words help us crystallize the blur of our experience.

And, I dare say, you bring that same expectation into your relationship with WORLD. That’s the case either in this paper-and-ink format, on our website, or on our daily podcast. You have come to anticipate that our reporters, writers, and editors will choose the right words when they describe what has happened over the last couple of weeks over at Fox News, at the White House, at Mar-a-Lago, in France’s presidential election, or in South Sudan.

So let me speak honestly. “Sleazy” really wasn’t the word I wanted the day I wrote that column. I remember pausing, consulting my dictionary and then my thesaurus, but finding nothing closer to the adjective I wanted to use to describe Fox News. What word would you have used last August? What word would you use now?


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  •  bwsmith's picture
    Posted: Tue, 05/02/2017 07:31 am

    Dear Joel,

    I loved this column on words! Especially "Words help us crystallize the blur of our experience." The older I get the more quickly they enter a game of hide and seek, and I need them to help me ordr the experiences of "maturity!" 

    And frannkly "sleazy" is a word that describes too many costumes some of the Fox News commentators wear.


  • Ben K
    Posted: Tue, 05/02/2017 11:32 am

    "Words help crystallize the blur of our experience" is a much needed insight in a time where experience is held in higher regard than reason.  Thanks for this piece.

  • Dick Friedrich
    Posted: Tue, 05/02/2017 09:53 pm

    Suspicious (last August) disputable (now)

    So true about words.

  • tavo
    Posted: Wed, 05/03/2017 02:59 pm

    You wrote, "He was showing off the penultimate aspect of His incredibly imaginative handiwork." Is there a last aspect? I think too often the word penultimate is used to mean something else.

  • MamaC
    Posted: Wed, 05/03/2017 04:40 pm

    Yes, the last aspect of "His incredibly imaginative handiwork" was obviously humankind, so the animals were the penultimate aspect, the next-to-last.

  • RW
    Posted: Wed, 05/03/2017 12:01 pm

    Wonderful article, but I do take exception with the decription of Fox news as balanced. Unfortunately I have found almost all televised news to be lacking in balance, depth or accuracy. It is difficult to profide any depth of story with the demands of time and sponsors. That is the reason that World is so important to our family. News here is reported without an agenda other than assisting the reader in understanding the issue and how it falls in the bigger of picture of God's plan. Articles are written with varying points of view and often challenge me to think about an issue from a different prespective, but a prespective that honors the word of God.

  • TWH
    Posted: Sun, 05/07/2017 09:36 pm

    Mr. Belz,

    I think you are selling your readers short by thinking that their reaction to your August column was simply due to word selection. That is a false choice, since you could have written the opening sentence in any number of ways that would have been admittedly less attention-getting, but more temperate.

    "It’s pretty ironic, don’t you think, that an outfit as sleazy as Fox News should either seek—or get—any credit at all for firing a fellow like Roger Ailes?"

    In writing this the way you did, you presented "as sleazy as" as a given (common knowledge), with the only question being asked of the reader whether Fox News should be seeking, or given, credit for firing Ailes. You did nothing to limit that characterization to one aspect of the operation. For that matter, who said Fox News was seeking credit for firing Roger Ailes? You never mentioned that point again.

    All this in the first sentence, before even beginning to make a case for your contention! Is it any wonder that some readers weren't immediately ready to jump on that bandwagon? It seems to me that interpreting this as a gratuitous insult wasn't at all out of bounds, and your follow-up questions only add insult to injury.  

    Thomas Hanks

    PS - I am a decades-long, very satisfied subscriber who is no friend of Fox News and didn't complain at the time

  • jwwarden
    Posted: Mon, 05/08/2017 10:02 am

    Matthew 23:12 tells us "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." In your Wielding Words  column, you used your first 3 paragraphs to tell us readers that you had told us so and then wrote."But the wrong four words right now would certainly be, “I told you so!” Too late for you because you had already let us know how accurate and brilliant you had been when you labeled Fox News as "sleasy" in a past column. In a poorly veiled attempt to cover your intent, you went on to discuss our use and choice of words. There will be no exaltation for you. Will Rogers once said "Never miss a good chance to shut up." You missed your chance.

  • E Cole
    Posted: Wed, 05/24/2017 11:30 pm

    I think you wielded the correct words in August and I doubt the culture there has really changed. From what I have read it appears that they knew for years they were giving shelter to sexual predators but didn't make changes until it was financially expedient.  Fox needs to go back to reporting news and just cut out the entertainment/opinion shows, so they can regain some credibility.