During the great controversial period of the sixteenth century, an English prelate advised one of his contemporaries to publish certain abuses of the clergy in Latin so as not to embarrass the church so far as the common people were concerned. "No," said the honest reformer, "they have sinned in English, and they shall be exposed in English." His attitude was commendable, but he has modern imitators whose zeal to call sin by its right name often exceeds the nice sense of fitness of phrase with facts.
Talleyrand once said that language is given men to conceal thought. Judging from some public utterances, that statement is less paradoxical than would at first appear. Calling a spade a horticultural implement or a batter spoon a culinary utensil is hardly on the side of language lucidity, or—lest we out-Latinize our own example—of clearness of meaning.
There is something to be said, however, for the sermonic use of euphemisms—a term applied to those felicities of speech which put gloves on disagreeable ideas. The effect of an otherwise good discourse is sometimes lost by some ill-chosen epithet or phrase which offends refined sensibilities. While we should not err on the side of squeamishness, neither should we neglect the study of such "cover words" as are afforded by borrowings of Latin and Greek parentage.
There is no merit in the exploitation of terms like "bum," "liar," "prostitute," "sexual," and similar expressions from the preaching desk. No one is offended by Anglo-Saxon Biblical phrases, such as "belly of the fish," "girded about the paps," and "thou bast covered me in my mother's womb;" but to interlard public exhortation with distasteful anatomical allusions or with references in lurid detail to immoral practices, is inexcusable, for it is palpably catering to the sensational.
Sin should be painted, not in attractive primary colors, but in a silhouette of black against the white purity of Jesus Christ. And silhouettes of evil are only suggestive outlines, not illuminated dioramas of sin.
Hence, to be specific by way of example in reference to our use of particular terms, how much more refined to say, "He removed his garments," than "He undressed;" or how less offensive it is to refer to Jephtha as a "baseborn son" than as "an illegitimate child."
Sympathy for the masses is engendered in the term, "the underprivileged," while aversion is excited in the violent phrase "the scum of society." Social sins may be generalized under "moral depravity" or "debauchery." To be more specific is to bemean the preacher's calling. Let us study the possibilities of softer terms, lest we needlessly offend sensitive minds.