A Friday Reflection: Playing with Words

In her book, entitled Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McIntyre writes about stewardship strategies for using words in various forms of communication. Her #10 strategy involves the concept of play in the communication process. She encourages a ‘free play of the mind’ as a precursor to the ‘process of playing around with words’ in communication. According to McIntyre, creative wordplay is often overlooked by communicators, which is unfortunate “[b]ecause to play with words is to love them, delight in them, honor their possibilities, and take them seriously.” McIntyre gives examples of playing with words and how wordplay may be used to inspire, encourage and entertain, which initiated my own ideas on examples and experiences with wordplay.

I thought of a few wonderful examples of wordplay in Holy Scripture. The first chapter of Jeremiah describes God’s call of Jeremiah to prophetic ministry, and v.11 states, “[a]nd the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Jeremiah, what do you see?” And I said, “I see an almond branch.” Then the Lord said to me, “You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it.”

Lost in the English translation of this text is a Hebrew play on words. God gives Jeremiah a vision of an almond branch which in the Hebrew text is rendered שָׁקֵ֖ד, shāqēd, almond branch. Then, God responds using the Hebrew word שֹׁקֵ֥ד, shōqēd, I am watching over. In Hebrew these words look and sound alike and have similar meanings. The vision of an almond tree is significant because it was the first tree to bloom in the spring. It was used in the watching for the spring. Thus, as people watch the almond tree for the realization of spring, God watches over his word for the fulfillment of his promises.

I like to imagine that in this interaction Jeremiah may have smiled and said something like, “God, I see what you did there with the wordplay.”  Or maybe Jeremiah collapsed to the floor with amazement at the profoundness of the wordplay. Whatever Jeremiah’s response, I think God was playful with words to address the challenging reality of Jeremiah’s call to preach the message of judgement and of hope and renewal, “to pluck up and break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). The people needed to know that past prophetic declarations of judgement and renewal would come true. God would watch for the spring-like moment, the first opportunity to carry out his word. The people needed to be reminded that like their watching the almond tree, God was watching them, and they needed to watch for God as he fulfilled his word.

A New Testament example of wordplay is in Matthew 16:18 which reads, “[a]nd I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” In the English text, the name Peter is derived from the Greek name Πέτρος, Petros which also carries the meaning of a stone or a rock. Moreover, in the Greek text the word πέτρᾳ, petra, stone or rock is used. Here we see similar looking and sounding words with similar meanings. With this knowledge, the reader may smile and say, “Aha, I see what you did there Matthew!” Or if one believes in the divine inspiration of Matthew, “Aha, I see what you did there God through Matthew!”

I acknowledge this is a notoriously debated passage between Roman Catholics and Protestants, specifically regarding the topic of the Pope. Sorry, I won’t be commenting on or resolving this debate, and I wish I could come up with some playful words to transition, but I got nothing. This is a strategy that I am just starting to learn, but I digress.

Regardless of how readers interpret this passage, I think we should recognize and appreciate the personal and powerful play on words within the broader textual context that also has a personal and powerful message for those confessing that Jesus is the Christ. Amid this profound and mysterious passage, God deemed it fitting to be playful with words to encourage and inspire and maybe even bring a smile to our faces. There are many other examples of wordplay in the Bible, and I think we should explore them, learn from them, enjoy them and share them with others. By doing this, I believe that we will develop God-like wordplay fruitfulness in our communications with others.

Personally, I have little experience or examples of being playful with words, so I will close with the example of a past colleague and friend named Bridget. I worked with Bridget in a homeless youth program where she is the founder and executive director. She has decades of experience serving youth experiencing challenging circumstances, but she always finds a way to make them smile. One way is by using wordplay. When I worked alongside her, she often used catchy limericks or a playful use of words that would stop youth (and me) in their tracks and jolt them into a positive and happy mood. I thought this was just something she did. Just a funny characteristic. Now, I think there is more to it. I think it is a gift that she has and a skillful strategy that she has developed. I think she knew something that I did not know at the time, that is, the power of the playful use of words. She has impacted hundreds of young people through wordplay, and so I think she stands among the great users of logopoeia (word creation). Bridget is an inspiration and an example of McIntyre’s strategy on the playful use of words which instigated this blog post.

Thus, with the examples in McIntyre’s chapter, the examples in the Bible and the example of Bridget, I am confident that I too (and others) can develop the strategy of wordplay in my communications with others.  This will no doubt take practice. As McIntyre states regarding wordplay, “Try it out. Spin it out. Play it out. See how it feels.” Now that’s grandandioadvice!