Stereotypes, caricatures, and labels have long been used to wound and corner our enemies. For the “greatest generation” the labels of Nazi, Fascist, and communist carry great weight. Today’s intellectual, cultural, and ecclesial domains have their labels as well. Like those of previous generations, these labels can be bandied about as the final word in any debate. Once you’ve been labeled, the fight is over.

Today’s labels can be easily summed up by nine letters, or three labels of three letters each: ish, ism, ist.

ISH - This label is the fairly recent invention of the younger generation. They employ the moniker on anything that isn’t quite all that it should be, good or bad. Take for example, if they think a song was good but not great, they might say that is was “okay … ish.” It’s not a word but it carries the sting of a thousand back-handed compliments. To be labeled “ish” is to be declared something short of a success or a failure … ”ish.”

ISM - This label has been around for years. In our current context, however, it has been dipped in poison. Any word with “ism” at the end is a bad word — fundamentalism, racism, rationalism, Calvinism. Regardless of the real meaning of the “ism” any “ism” is perceived to be a bad thing. The very thought of an “ism” sends people scurrying for cover from the evil ogres who bear the mark of that beast.

IST - This label is the red-headed step-child of “ism.” If you’ve been slapped with the reputation of belonging to an “ism” you must of necessity be an “ist.” You’re a fundamentalist! You’re sexist! You’re such a … “ist!” If you believe the media and some in the church, if you’re an “ist,” you’re the worst. There’s no “ish” when it comes to “ist.”

So, when the mudslinging begins, be ready. Recognize the weapons of your opponent and be prepared to be slapped in the face with one of these unmentionable three-letter words. When it happens, remember, it won’t kill you. But, it might sting … “ish.”