Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Words, Words, Nuns

The twentieth century was dominated by an acute obsession with language. It seems to have begun among the academic-types, whether In the wordplay of Joyce, the ruminations of Orwell on political distortions, or the "linguistic turn" in philosophy inspired by Wittgenstein. It seems this trend was vulgarized via both the advertising industry and the movements associated with politically correct thinking. Various women I know have lamented the unfairness of the term "slut," since they know of no male equivalent. Of course, "philanderer" is a similarly disapproving male-specific term, but it has fallen into disuse. Possibly this is because the word has too many syllables for the regretably Anglo-Saxon-dominated English vocabulary of vituperative slang, but I think the exaltation of the "playa" is the more likely reason.

I am myself a scrutinizer of words, unleashing my preternatural powers of pedantry on most everything that catches my eye. Every so often, I hear a phrase that sticks in my mind forever, just waiting to be analyzed. One such term, "Father What-a-Waste," is the often-whistful description of a handsome priest made a young woman. I first came across the phrase in the first few chapters of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, and a short time later a woman in one of my Catholic student groups also made the remark while reflecting on the students at the local seminary. So it lodged in my brain, waiting an opportunity to be sprung.

Such an opportunity came today in the mail, in the form of a donation request from a Michigan convent. Their vocations crisis is such that they have far too many sisters than they can house and educate. Included was a picture demonstrating that, as the solicitation claimed, the average age of their sisters was indeed in the twenties rather than in the sixties. The picture also brought to my attention that there is no male-usage equivalent for the term "Father What-a-waste." A search on Google, the virtual concordance of contemporary English usage, only reveals one hit for "Sister What-a-Waste," referring to the young actress depicting a nun in the crummy new television show "Revelations."

Perhaps male Catholics simply don't talk about pretty nuns the same way women talk about handsome priests, but frankly it is hard to judge, having been quite difficult for anyone to find a young nun lately. The labeling of some elderly, habitless nun as "Sister What-a-Waste" would be fodder for a tasteless parody.

This in itself isn't irrefutable evidence of the contemporary image of nuns, but I think several discussions in the more argumentative circles of Catholics also bolsters the idea that in the eyes of many people nuns are always old ladies. For instance, I've seen debates about whether or not priests should go about in clericals in which some argued that the uniform helps put off unwanted, yet tempting, advances. I have never seen a similar argument advanced in discussions of whether or not nuns should wear secularish clothes.

So much for my verbose thoughts on word use. Since I have no money to give to the nuns who provoked my ruminations, I'll plug their website: Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

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