Amen to That

The random arrangement of letters should not give offense

I understand language is fluid and meanings of words change from time to time. That’s a frustrating for sticklers who dislike when people say anxious when they mean eager. Or pedants who’ve begrudgingly accepted that people now graduate college instead of (correctly) graduating from college.

Words change. It’s a thing. It’s called semantic shift, and it happens for many reasons. There are four kinds of shift: broadening, becoming more inclusive; narrowing, becoming less inclusive; amelioration, an upgrade in the status of the word, and pejoration, the downgrade in the meaning of a word.

We’re all aware of the annoying change in the meaning of the word literally. Nice used to mean silly and foolish, awful meant full of awe, and fizzle was the stealthy passing of gas. Listen to an old song and you’ll know the metamorphosis of the word gay.

The gentle transformation of a word’s meaning is one thing, but a heavy-handed, clumsy, forced change of the word itself is another thing. In other words, keep your hands off amen!

Recently, the representative from Missouri’s 5th Congressional District closed his prayer at the year’s new session of Congress by saying, “Amen and Awoman.”

I don’t know his motivation but he was correcting a problem that doesn’t exist. The value and contributions of women are not otherwise slighted if you let your amen be amen. Amen is not a gendered word. Amen is derived from the Hebrew āmēn, which means certainty or truth. It is found in the Hebrew Bible, and in both the Old and New Testament. It’s a universal term of agreement, even if you remove any religious context from it.

Randomly through translation to English, a group of letters were arranged to form amen. Gender is not implied and shouldn’t be inferred. Will we assign another meaning to mandate or mental or manatee or amendment? Should we start playing anagrams with our language?

Unlike congressperson, amen has no bearing on gender, and this congressman isn’t righting a previous wrong. He didn’t begin a semantic shift. He butchered a lovely word, rich in meaning and history. As a woman going through menopause I’m not offended by the use of the gender neutral words but by the mendacious manipulation of letters to fix a phantom offense.

Some words are cross cultural and moved unchanged from language to language. Amen, along with ok and huh, is one of the most widely known and unaltered words in the world.

In Arabic, you’d say amin. And in Finnish you’d say aamen. The biggest variation comes from the Portuguese, known for their hair-pulling irregular verbs: um homen. Close enough.

My history with amen comes in the form of a song, aptly named Amen, that was widely introduced to the world in 1963 by Sidney Poitier in the movie Lilies of the Field. It’s such a great movie. It was always on TV around Easter when I was growing up

Poitier plays Homer Smith, a “life-loving ex GI who one day encounters five nuns escaped from beyond the Berlin Wall,” according to the movie poster.

That description of the movie is like taking a picture of the Grand Canyon on your iPhone. It doesn’t capture the depth, dimensions, and curves. Homer Smith, in attempting to help some struggling nuns with chores in rural Arizona, gets lulled into the greater vision of the Mother Superior who dreams of a proper church building (or chapel) for the area’s flock of Catholics.

Homer gives English lessons to the nuns

As different as these East European devote Catholic women are from the roving, jack-of-all-trades Baptist black man, they develop a respect that crosses all these lines.

In a scene where the nuns are worshipping God with a venerable chant, Homer shows them how a Baptist worships right down to distinguishable but different pronunciation of amen. A-men, Ah-men. Tomatoes, tomahtoes.

It’s pivotal and joyful scene where the ice really begins to break in the way they see each other. There are some things universal and sacred and lovely. Amen is one of them. The song appears in the final scene of the movie too. This clip is the final scene, and you see Homer, with job well done, moving on. The movie has a last word: amen.

Poitier won the Best Actor Oscar for portraying Homer Smith, the first black man to win it. I’ve owned a VHS and DVD copy and have quoted lines many times. And sung the song.

This movie demonstrates the universality of the word. It’s a word that unites, brings agreement for peoples of many cultures and languages. We need more of that. Please, in the name of all things holy, leave amen alone. This is not a fight this word belongs in, if words mean anything.

Can I get an amen?

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