Has anyone else noticed what I call the ‘sponge words’ we use increasingly? These are words that are amorphous, vague and spongy. They soak up huge amounts of sub-text, innuendo and connotation, but they can mean virtually anything.

Take the word ‘inappropriate’. What on earth does that mean? I hear it in the confessional all the time, “I did something inappropriate with my girlfriend.” Huh? So I say, “Son, you’ll have to be a little bit more precise. I don’t want the juicy details, but nobody really knows what ‘inappropriate’ means. Did you cheat at miniature golf? Rob a bank like Bonnie and Clyde? Use the wrong fork when you went out to dinner? Gossip about a friend? Hold her hand at the movies or have sexual intercourse?” Honestly, people have different standards, and the word ‘inappropriate’ can mean anything or nothing at all.

When it comes to sexual behaviors in our society today what is ‘inappropriate’? College kids who are ‘hooking up’ every weekend might think it ‘inappropriate’ to hook up with more than two people on one weekend. A couple who are dating might think it perfectly ‘appropriate’ to spend the night together or go on vacation together. Things are not what they once were. Standards in our society have shifted. I’ve known priests, for example, who think it totally ‘appropriate’ to have a sexual partner because, they argue, their vow of celibacy just means they can’t get married.

The word ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’ is used to excuse sin and let ourselves off the hook, but it can also be used to condemn people unjustly because nobody really defines what the word means. Instead they throw it around at their own convenience. So Nancy Smith says in a shocked tone about a Catholic school teacher, “He had an inappropriate relationship with my daughter!” Turns out the poor had the girl’s cell phone number on his cell phone contacts list because he had to contact the girl when they were on a school field trip and now, due to the gossip everyone thinks he was sleeping with the girl.

Another sponge word is ‘affair’. “My husband is having an affair!” or “My wife was having an affair with another man for five years!” It turns out that it was “an emotional affair” which consisted of flirting and texting and meeting up for a meal. OK, such behavior doesn’t help a marriage. It’s a form of betrayal. It breeds jealousy and is dumb, and it can even be sinful. It destroys trust and can wreck a relationship, but it’s not an affair. An affair means adultery. Adultery is when you have sexual intercourse with someone who is married to somebody else, or with someone who is not your spouse. I know one woman who told everyone her husband was having an affair. His reputation is wrecked and all the other woman look down on him as a dirty beast when all he did was chat with an old girlfriend on Facebook.

The third sponge word is ‘abuse’. How do I hear, “My father was abusive!” or “My wife is abusive to the kids.” or “My boss is abusive.” This used to mean that a guy came home drunk three times a week, gave his wife a black eye, kicked his kids down the stairs, and locked his mother in law in the closet. Now, when you check the facts you find out that the ‘abusive father’ loses it and shouts at the kids sometimes, or the ‘abusive mother’ gets stroppy once a month and swears at the kids and maybe spanks them once in a while. Then there is ’emotional abuse’ and even ‘spiritual abuse’. Yes, I suppose all these things happen, but too often these spongy words contribute to a whiny, victim culture.

Meanwhile the ‘abusive institution’ may well be a Catholic school that has high standards of discipline and expects kids to behave themselves. I had a guy complain of ‘an abusive priest’ once and I thought he’d been molested by some pervert priest. It turns out that the man, when he was a kid, turned up to be an altar server wearing sneakers and the priest told him that he couldn’t serve wearing sneakers.

Instead of sponge words we need square facts. In general conversation, keep to the facts and avoid gossip and detraction and sponge words that are loaded with innuendo. In confession tell the priest what happened clearly and objectively without going into gory details. Use circumlocution and discreet language by all means to soften the shock and shame, if shocking and shameful it is, but be honest and transparent and don’t use weasly, cowardly spongy words like ‘inappropriate’, ‘affair’ and ‘abuse’.