Word Play

by Arthur W. Anderson

Words can carry freight so precariously placed that if the load shifted, it would be tragic. Once, when my son and I were out on the green kingdom playing a game I occasionally indulge in, we pulled up behind a stalled foursome waiting to tee off. I asked them how they were doing. One expressed delight in his game thus far. Another blurted out in considerable ecstasy, “I’m as happy as hell.” From his words one might gather that he was frustrated, but such was not the case. He, too, was pleased.

I could not drop the phrase from my mind. If he had said, “Happy as heaven,” it would have fit better with my theology, but it wouldn’t have carried the same payload. Sometimes when we put two opposite phrases together, they become benign. Sometimes they jar, or even blow up in our faces. Sometimes they become tangy like sweet-and-sour pork.

Golfers are known to use the expletive when the drive slices into the woods. But to express exuberance with it, isn’t that crazy? I certainly do not commend the use of four-letter words to get our point across. But all of this juxtaposition business reminds me that the dynamic of being human is the struggle of opposites within us, the ambiguities and the paradoxes. As the poet put it, a human being “is created half to rise, half to fall, the glory, jest and riddle of the world.” The angel in us needs the imp.

When we talk about virtue, our words and speech can have such an immaculate quality that virtue seems a thing unconnected with being human. Hearing of such virtue makes us smile and approve but does not invite. However, put the good in the. center of a plot with little chance of keeping its goodness and it suddenly becomes attractive. When joy is touched with the mischievous, we get a real belly laugh.

Salt comes from two dangerous opposites—sodium and chlorine. People who are the salt of the earth express these polarities within them. “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?”

How’s my game? I am at a loss for words.