Language lessons from Humpty Dumpty, the Holy Innocents and Terry Pratchett

Toby Lees warns that when we empty language of meaning we destroy others – and ourselves.

When people find out I was a lawyer before I became a Catholic priest, one of the questions I am most often asked is, “Do you still use any of your legal skills?” The answer in short is “no”, but I don’t think I completely wasted seven years of my life being a lawyer, although I wish I had become a priest sooner.

The greatest benefit I think I gained as a lawyer is an ability to write well and clearly under pressure – hopefully, reading this, you will agree! 

Being a lawyer, and especially a pensions lawyer, where the documents you drafted were deeds that might be of consequence for decades, not just for a particular transaction, gave you a real concern for language and for precision.

Not infrequently a deed drafted years ago would cause very real problems due to a failure to envisage a future development or simply an ambiguity in the drafting or some sloppiness.

Now in some cases, particularly with regards to sloppy drafting, the meaning the drafting was intended to convey would be perfectly obvious, but sadly we were not in Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty World, where the lawyer who drafted the deed could say:

“When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

Whilst in the legal world words still have very real meanings irrespective of the intention of their author, we are increasingly getting to that situation in many spheres of life where the meaning of language is in the mouth of the speaker.

This divorce between language and reality is more pronounced now than ever, but it’s not a new thing.

When anybody suddenly changes the meaning of words you need to be very careful. As the biblical scholar NT Wright points out, in German dictionaries you can see words asterisked with NS, meaning these definitions were given to the words by the National Socialist party. The Nazis gave certain words a new meaning.

More recently, you may recall how when, in the United Kingdom, the motion to introduce laws permitting assisted suicide failed, the same bill came back a few years later but cloaked under the language of ‘assisted dying’, seeking to remove the reality of what’s going on by giving it a more natural gloss.

Similarly in Stalinist Russia, there were whole categories of people called ‘former persons’ and once they were no longer considered persons it became far easier to justify shipping them off or killing them. 

Language was used to dehumanise. The underlying humanity of these persons had not changed, but calling them something different both helped to justify inhumane treatment and to actually allow those tasked with torturing, killing etc to do so. They used language to blind themselves to the reality of who they were killing; the ‘who’ had become a ‘what’, an object, or at least something less than human.

If you want a common example of the way language has lost its reference to any underlying reality, simply listen to a celebrity talking about ‘my truth’ as if my truth and your truth could be at odds on the same point of fact and yet both be true.

The language of ‘my truth’ rejects the basic philosophical principle of non-contradiction – that something cannot both be the case and not be the case at the same time. And once we reject the principle of non-contradiction we have essentially lost the ability to think rationally.

When Humpty Dumpty insisted that words mean exactly what he intends them to mean, Alice replies, “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.” To which Humpty says, “The question is which is to be master – that’s all.”

It appears that Humpty was a fan of the philosopher Michel Foucault who was influential in advancing the idea that language is not ultimately about truth but about power.

For Foucault language was not primarily about saying true things about reality, language was about how it could be used. Whoever controls language gets to create reality and therefore wields power. Truth is not part of the picture here.

This is demonic.

In the Bible the gospel of St John begins by describing Jesus Christ as the divine creative Word. He is the Word, the Logos, the Divine Reason, who brings all of reality into being and our language is true and good to the extent that it describes the reality he has created. God creates reality, we don’t.

But with the idea that by our human language we create our own reality, we are usurping God. That’s why it’s demonic.

I have spoken already about language being used to dehumanise and then to justify and make possible inhumane treatment of human beings, and nowhere is that more true than in the case of abortion, where words such as foetus or phrases such as ‘a clump of cells’ are used to deny the reality of a very young child. When we do this to our most vulnerable, then no one is really safe and it dehumanises us all.

A person is seen as a threat or an obstacle to my will in the present moment, and so I change the language around the other person to deny their humanity and feel validated in doing whatever is necessary to remove the one who is now simply an obstacle and no longer a person.

We probably all know about the biblical account of king Herod having all those babies killed in an attempt to kill Jesus. In slaughtering all those Holy Innocents so as to remain on his throne, Herod must have engaged in some real mental gymnastics, denying the reality of what he was doing for the sake of his sovereignty or he must already have become mad. 

After all, to be divorced from the reality of one’s actions is madness, and if we keep up a denial long enough, and start to believe it, madness is the result.

But it’s very easy to say I would never do what Herod did and still objectify, manipulate, and mistreat people in so many other ways. 

Pornography, wage slavery, trafficking, driving an unfair bargain, are just some of the ways we objectify the person and seek to justify our sin. How many times have I denied my own dignity in order to justify my evil while denying the dignity of someone else?

This root of so much sin (and I use that word deliberately, with all it means) as the denial and objectification of others is a point well made in one of my favourite novels from my youth, one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, which, by the way, is far from being a religious work. It’s worth reflecting on the ways in which we might be doing this more than we think.

His book, Carpe Jugulum, gives us an excellent definition of sin in this exchange between the Omnian priest, Mightily Oats, and the rather contemplative witch, Granny Weatherwax:

“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin,” said Oats.

“And what do they think? Against it, are they?” said Granny Weatherwax.

“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”



“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that . . .”

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes . . .”

“But they starts with thinking about people as things . . . ”

That just about says it all. “They starts with thinking about people as things.” We deny black and white and invent false shades of gray. We think we can use language to dehumanize others and so hide our guilt. But in the end, when we deny the humanity of others we lose our own. 

This is a slightly edited version of an audio podcast by Fr Toby which can be heard here. For other podcasts by Fr Toby, click here.

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Fr Toby Lees OP is a Catholic priest and member of the Order of Preachers (known as the Dominicans). He was born in London and studied law at Cambridge University, going on to be a solicitor for seven years with a city law firm. After discerning a call to the priesthood, he specialised in moral theology in Rome, writing his thesis on the passion of sorrow and the vice of acedia in St Thomas Aquinas and what his thought might contribute to a contemporary understanding of depression. His particular academic interest is the crossover between moral theology and psychology. He serves at the Dominican Priory at the Rosary Shrine, Haverstock Hill and is Priest Director of Radio Maria England. He loves all sport, but especially rugby and cricket, and he enjoys running and swimming on Hampstead Heath. He also loves real ale, fiction, and pilgrimages, and is always trying to work out a way to walk yet another Camino to Santiago.

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