Posted by: dacalu | 9 September 2011

A War for Words

As I was driving home this evening, my mind drifted to the number of words that have lost their meaning over the centuries. We reflect occasionally on the number of new words being added to the English language, but how often to we think about the words that are lost – the things we can no longer say, the meanings we can no longer say. Communication can be a tricky business. It involves my sending out a packet of meaning for you to pick up. It also involves the hope that you will unpack my words in the same way that I packed them, a dicey proposition at best. I dearly love poetry because it so often plays with imprecision of language, delights in the ambiguity of words and meanings that plague clear communication.

With that in mind, let me begin.

First, I want to mourn the words we have lost. It’s not that we don’t know them anymore; rather we still use them but have somehow demoted them to other words entirely. Brain comes to mind – or was that the other way around. The concept of a mind – the faculty of thought, memory, intention – can now be used interchangeably with brain – a physical organ. I don’t particularly object to the notion that mind is deeply interlocked with the brain. I’m even open to the idea that one day we may discover mind to be nothing more than a function of the brain (noting that we’re nowhere near that at present). Nonetheless, the very question of how mind relates to brain requires us to note the difference. One is a faculty, an ability; the other is an organ. Even in a strictly materialist universe, I would still say that having speed and having legs are not the same thing. Speed is an attribute of the self mediated by the legs, but they have no speed on their own. (Or is that Restless Leg Syndrome?)

Likewise, I have commented before on the demotion of belief (to hold dear, or from L: credo to put one’s heart to) to intellectual assent. Both faith (to put trust in) and belief have come to represent some intellectual notion, particularly one without evidence. Some even refer to it as an emotional attachment to a concept which is not intellectual.

I might also mention celibacy (vowed singleness), chastity (right sexual behavior), and abstinence (restraint from indulgence) now all seem to mean not having sex. How can we even talk about ethics when we no longer use words that allow us to tease out exactly what we mean?

But enough of the curmudgeonly complaining. Some words have simply passed on. What can one do but try to communicate in the vernacular. That said, some words ARE NOT DEAD YET. Those words need to be treasured and defended. I still have hope that faith and belief may be resurrected, but I use them carefully. Love, even more so. A word like love has come to mean a hundred things in English, from mild affection, to passionate zeal, to dispassionate concern. Which are we to mean? Especially when talking about that most common noun, “Christian love.” I confess, I generally say “compassion” instead, because it seems less loaded. We must fight for this word love: use it sparingly and honestly so that when we say it we mean something. Sadly, charity is already lost. Charity (to value) now means giving to the poor. Nonetheless, that word in Latin (caritas) and in Greek (agape) needs to be retained in a way that honors the scriptures in which we find it. I dare say that Christianity without love is dead.

I’m not asking you to stop “loving” vanilla ice cream, or puppies (in general). I am asking you to think about how you use the word and how people hear it. Maybe stop using it when you say I “love” that Chihuahua (in particular) unless you actually love the Chihuahua in question. Maybe refrain from saying I “love” that show, or that actress and say what you mean – you like it alot. Love is more than liking alot. Love entails value, concern for, and desire for relationship with. In those tricky intermediate situations, where we like but don’t love, perhaps we should be more explicit.

I also try to avoid the word hate altogether. Insofar as I hate anyone, I try not to, so I don’t share the sentiment. I might dislike them immensely, but that’s not the same thing. In a country divided over the use of marriage, Matrimony, and wedding (three words with very different histories), you think we’d appreciate just how important this sort of thing can be. Sure, we think about it in church; we think about it when talking theology or philosophy; but do we think about it going about our daily life?

The words we use shape the way we think, and they send messages to others about the way we think. Evangelism… Hey, there’s another one. It means sharing the good news, but is often demoted to proselytizing (converting people to your group). Real evangelism means showing what we believe (hold dear) in word and action. Some words are worth fighting for.



  1. Robert McCloskey said it best:
    ““I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” A Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey

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