In the use of language certain sophistication is necessary that appreciates the different modes of speech that are often used. A lot of communication breaks down today because many lack the sophistication necessary to understand when various modes of speech are being employed and how they are to be interpreted.
Not only does this lead to poor communication, but it also affects Biblical interpretation and also the way in which many understand Church teaching and practices.
In hopes of greater understanding of the often subtle and different modes of speech, perhaps we can review some terms and distinctions related to modes of speech.
Denotation vs. Connotation – Denotation refers to the literal, dictionary meaning of a word, usually the first meaning of word listed there. For example, the denotative meaning of the word “snake” is “any of numerous scaly, legless, often venomous reptiles of long and cylindrical body and found in most tropical as well as temperate regions.”
Connotation, on the other hand, refers to the associations that are connected to a certain word or the emotional suggestions related to that word. The connotative meanings of a word tap into the denotative meanings but also point beyond the merely literal meaning. The connotations for the word snake could include evil or danger. Thus to call snake would speak to their poisonous, predatory or dangerous tendencies. A snake connotes danger and sinister practices.
Connotation opens language to a wide variety of meanings and interpretations based on context. Such deviations from literal meaning are called “figures of speech” or figurative language. There are many different kinds of figures of speech, such as
Simile, – A simile is a comparison between two dissimilar objects using a word like as or like to connect them. Notice that simile means something is “like” something else in certain respects. It does not mean that they are identical.
Thus, when Jesus warned against casting our pearls before swine, he is using a simile and saying that human beings can adopt certain traits associated with pigs. He is not say humans ARE pigs. Since, pigs only value what they can eat, putting fine but inedible things before pigs mean that they will simply be trampled underfoot. And some people who rather carnal can develop the same attitude toward the pearls of “spiritual gifts” since they do not provide simple bodily pleasure. In this sense people are like (simul) pigs by having a similar trait, but Jesus is not saying they actually are pigs. And this is simile.
Metaphor, – A metaphor is like a simile, except that a metaphor compares two dissimilar objects without using a word like as or like. If you say, “My girlfriend is an angel” you are using metaphor. But again a certain trait of an angel is being borrowed, not the full angelic reality. Even though one says, “My girlfriend is an angel” this is not a declaration that she has a complete angelic nature and is not, in fact, human.
If you say, in the words of an old song: “When I take my sugar to tea,” “sugar” here does not refer to the granular sucrose material, but to a woman. And the woman is not actual sugar. Yes, she is a “sweetie,” but possessed of female human nature.
This is metaphor: two dissimilar objects are compared or have some common trait though they are distinct.
In the Bible some err in understanding certain texts because they miss the metaphor. Thus, in Genesis when there is reference to a race of “giants” (Gen 6:1-4), one need not necessarily take this as a literal declaration that there used to be people on the planet who were over ten feet tall. For example, of the generation of priests in the 1940s and 1950s I might say, “They were real giants!” Or I might speak of that era as the “age of the giants.” But I do not refer to their physical stature. But rather to their influence and power. It is a metaphor, a figure of speech.
And thus in biblical texts we ought to consider that the use of metaphor may explain certain things like giants. It is not always clear when metaphor is being used, but reading everything in an unvarying literalistic way, many yield poor results, and thus the Church permits recourse to the possibility and likelihood of metaphor in many cases.
Personification – One may describe an inanimate object, animal, or abstraction with human qualities and characteristics, as though it were a person this is personification.
For example, I call my older model Crown Victoria car, “Betty Grable” as a term of affection, for its stately but older quality, and because I got it from my parents after their death. And Betty Grable speaks to their generation. My Secretary calls her call “Betty Boop” because it is a spunky and sportier car, with a lot of pizzaz.
Hyperbole (sometimes called overstatement) – occurs when you exaggerate a point that you are trying to make for emphasis. If you say, “There must have been a million people there,” you are using hyperbole. There were not likely an exact million in attendance, but the point is there were a lot of people.
When Jesus says, if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out (e.g. Matt 5), He is not giving a command that we mutilate ourselves. He is using an exaggeration that emphasizes we ought to be serious about sin and removing its causes, and that it is more serious to sin that to lose an eye.
Understatement – is related to hyperbole in that understatement is the opposite of hyperbole: Understatement implies more than is actually stated. Let’s say an event was standing room only, and when someone asks you if there were many people there, you say, “Oh yes, there were a few people there.”
Paradox – refers to a form a speech that provocatively goes against the common way of understanding something. Paradox seems initially to have contradictory elements, but after some reflection and contextualizing, those elements can later make sense.
For example, when Jesus says we must lose our life to preserve or save it, we are initially puzzled, since we usually do not think we can possess or preserve something we have lost. Losing money (for example) is the opposite of saving it. Thus, the saying of Jesus that we must lose in order to save is paradoxical.
But of course what he means is that we must often lose one thing to make room for something greater. We must let go of lesser and passing things to inherit greater and eternal things. And thus the context helps resolve the tension of the paradox.
A pun – is a play on word that occurs when one word is used that reminds you of another word, or words. You can, for example, use a word that looks like or sounds like another word.
For example, English-speaking Christians can play on the word Sun and Son perhaps by saying, “The women went out to the tomb very early at the rising of the son (sun).” When spoken aloud (as opposed to writing – wherein the words are spelled differently) an English speaker can play on the similar sound and thus use a creative figure of speech.
Another example of a pun occurs in the playful words of an old country song: “Ever since you hung up on me, I’m hung up on you.” In this sentence the phrase “hung up” is being used playfully in two very different senses. One puns by playfully interposing two different senses in the same sentence.
Verbal Irony – Irony involves a contradiction. Being ironic means that you say something but mean the opposite to what you say.
For example, suppose some one tells me that he had a big repair bill on something and I say, “Well, aren’t you lucky!” I mean exactly the opposite of what I actually say.
Or suppose you are on a basketball court and one player makes a great shot, and the other players say (in admiration) “He’s bad!” Which actually means he is good!
In John’s gospel there are many verses dripping with irony. For example, the man born blind comes to see who Jesus is, while the Pharisees who could see, will not recognize Jesus. This causes Jesus to say, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
Later in John the Temple leaders, who are unjustly seeking to kill the Son of God will not come into the Praetorium (governor’s house) because they do not want to sin by incurring ritual impurity before the Sabbath. John records this fact with an almost derisive irony.
Frankly there are dozens of other modes of speech and rhetorical devices that enter into human speech and writing.
Too many today have lost touch with the subtlety of human language and this causes error, tension, misunderstanding, and the taking of offense when none is intended. On the Internet forum misunderstanding is often magnified, since the helpful signals of facial expression and tone of voice are missing. I have often written something in a light-hearted and jocose way, only to be interpreted as being deadly serious by some who also take offense where I mean none.
Thus, more than ever, we do well to remember that speech has modes, and employs a lot of subtle and sophisticated devices.
So how about a little sophistication from us all who read? How about also giving the benefit of the doubt to the writer, and presuming more often a benign interpretation of the words before rushing to extreme conclusion.
Just sayin…. (by which I really mean I am just writing, and also by which I don’t mean say I am JUST writing, for I am also thinking… )
Boy! (an interjective, personification of an imaginary interlocutor) I think I’d just better quit (by which I really just mean to stop temporarily) while I’m ahead (a spatial allusion not to be literally interpreted). Do you get my drift?