My family sometimes plays a game called “Balderdash.” It is a game which uses very obscure English words. A word is read and then each player has to invent a definition to try to fool the other players. Finally each player tries to guess the correct meaning of the word. The game always reminds me of how small my vocabulary is relative to the vast number of English words that exist.
Our language keeps growing with new words and new combinations of words. I recently saw a cartoon in The New Yorker in which a man from the city is addressing a flock of sheep. He tells them that the shepherd has retired and that henceforth he will be their “grazing-resource coordinator and flock welfare-and-security manager.” I suppose that parallels the way in which garbage men have become sanitary engineers. My own favorite is the suggestion that people should not be called “old,” but rather “chronologically advantaged.” Such changes are amusing. But changes in vocabulary can also influence the way we think.
Desiderius Erasmus wrestled with words for his 1516 translation of the New Testament from Greek into Latin. Especially in translating John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word,” he faced a problem. How would he translate the Greek word logos (Word)? Jerome over a thousand years earlier had translated logos as verbum. Erasmus knew that that translation was so firmly established that he hesitated to change it. Yet he felt that verbum communicated too much the idea that the Christ was just a single word. He wanted to use the word oratio for his translation. He believed that oratio carried better the meaning that the logos was not a single word, but was the communication (oration) of God. He finally decided against that choice, however, because in Latin oratio is a feminine noun and in Greek logos is a masculine noun. He finally settled on sermo for his translation, a Latin word for conversation (from which our English world sermon comes.) He labored over just one word to express the meaning of the inspired Word as accurately as possible. It helps us understand Christ and His mission to remember that He is the logos, the communication of God with us.
George Orwell gave classic expression to the importance of words in his famous novel, 1984. He wrote that one of the aims of the totalitarian state of Big Brother was to develop a new language called Newspeak. The goal of Newspeak was to have as small a vocabulary as possible. “Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?... Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.”1 Control thought by limiting vocabulary was the ideal of Big Brother.
Thought is also shaped, however, by new vocabulary. John Updike in his novel S. gives a comic, but painful look at what a new vocabulary can mean. The central character in the novel is Sarah, a middle-aged (chronologically semi-advantaged) woman from New England who leaves her husband to join a Hindu ashram in Arizona. The form of the novel is a collection of letters that she writes to friends and family. The novel abounds in so much Hindu terminology that Updike supplies a glossary in the back. In a letter to her ex-husband Sarah writes, “Midge’s yoga group, that I joined just for the exercises and something to do, gave me a vocabulary."2 What she means is that in her yoga group she learned new words that reflected a new way of looking at the world. Near the end of the book she reflects, “The Asian part of my experience has been perfect - a whole new vocabulary to frame the perennial problems in, and a way of looking at them that makes them almost vanish, like those holograms... that are somehow printed onto tiny iridescent ridges and show you different things or the same thing from a different angle when you very slightly move your head.”3
Words can lead to new ways of looking at the world in less obvious ways than joining a Hindu community. Part of the new vocabulary of our times is derived from the world of psychology. I remember being struck a number of years ago, when an assassin tried to kill Pope John Paul II, that all of the newsmen covering the story commented that the assassin must be crazy or insane. No one thought he might be wicked.
We can see a similar shift in vocabulary with the misuse of alcohol. One hundred years ago someone who drank too much was a drunk. Today he is an alcoholic. I do not want to enter into the debate here about which is the better term, but only to note that the shift in vocabulary influences our way of thinking. Some other similar verbal shifts that have influenced our society are: habits to addictions, bums to homeless, queers to gays, adulterers to significant others. Bon Jovi in one of its songs illustrates this phenomenon pointedly with the refrain, “I call it love; they call it living in sin.”
Christians have to be very careful with their words. It is not enough to avoid “dirty” words. We have to guard ourselves even more from vocabularies drawn from anti-Christian religions and world-views that will reshape our thinking. We must keep biblical words and categories of thought as foundational to our own. “In the beginning was the Word.”
1. George Orwell, 1984, New York (New American Library), 1983, p. 46.
2. John Updike, S., New York (Alfred A. Knopf), 1988, p. 11.
3. Ibid., p. 235.
Originally published in The Outlook, November 1991, by Reformed Fellowship, Inc. www.reformedfellowship.net. Used with permission.
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