Have you ever noticed that many words sound similar, but have very different meanings? For example, a few years ago I was a Lector, that is, I was doing the readings at Mass. This is how I proclaimed St. Paul’s words from Scripture: “…our Savior, Christ Jesus, who destroyed death and brought life and immorality to light through the Gospel.”
Oops, the correct word was “immorTALity,” which has a slightly different meaning than immorality. But those two words sound so similar, I had no idea I had just told the congregation that we all should go out and, in Jesus’ name, embrace a life of sin. As I walked back to my pew, I didn’t understand why people were giving me funny looks.
I forgot all about it, and when Mass ended, a friend approached me and said, “ImmoRALity? Really? That’s what the Bible tells us to do?”
My puzzled expression told him I had no clue what he meant. So, he explained what I had said. At first, I didn’t believe him, until at least ten people confirmed it. “Oh no,” I said. “I hope there wasn’t someone at Mass today desperately looking for spiritual direction. If so, I just sent him to the casino to blow his rent money on Blackjack and booze!”
Two other words like this are selflessness and selfishness. They sound so similar, but have the exact opposite meaning. I’m pretty sure in my many years of being a Lector, there have been times when I mistakenly encouraged people to stop being so selfless and instead become selfish.
And I’m sure there were a couple of occasions when I declared that the Israelites were commanded to obey the Lord’s statues. I suspect statues were not really popular with the Israelites, especially after the golden calf debacle. But there were plenty of important statutes. It’s remarkable how one missing “t” can really change the meaning of a word.
This topic reminds me of a time a woman approached me after Mass and said, “I often read your column in the newspaper. I find it fairly humorless.”
To which I replied, “Oh, thank you. I try to make them as funny as possible.”
She paused for a moment, confused, then said, “No, I mean, I think they are humorLESS.”
“Why, thank you again, ma’am,” I said. “I believe it’s important to have something humorous to read in the paper.”
She threw up her hands in frustration, muttered, “Wow, this guy is dense,” then turned and started to walk away.
“Well, I usually try to avoid deep subjects,” I said to her, “but thanks for the compliment!” (I’ve found that sometimes during situations like this, it’s best to pretend to be totally dense. And sometimes I don’t even have to pretend.)
My most memorable word blunder at church was due to the unfortunate fact that two particular words begin with “t-h” and end with “o-u-g-h.” The words are through and though. They each are pronounced differently; they each have different meanings; and while standing in front of a large gathering and reading from a book, they each appear almost identical on the printed page.
While reading the 23rd Psalm, this is what I said: “Yea, thru I walk tho’ the valley of the shadow death.” Ugh, as soon as I realized what I had said, it felt like I was walking through the valley of the shadow of Shameful Public Speaking.
The bottom line is: words are tricky. I’ve been writing and speaking publicly for over 25 years now. For all you folks out there who read my column or hear me on the radio and then send me nice notes, I really depreciate it.