Words have been known to change over time. Does it matter that their meanings shift? What is lost when they do? Put simply: do words matter?
A book I’m reading quotes Maggie Gallagher as having said this:
There is no reason in the world why we — or the law — cannot redefine “cat” to mean “furry, domestic animal with four legs and a tail.” Defining “cat” in this way has certain advantages. It reveals the deep underlying similarities for example between those tow formerly opposite classifications: “dog” and “cat.” Not to mention “gerbil,” “rabbit,” and “guinea pig.”
What is lost in redefining “cat” in this way?
Well, there is one little thing: we now no longer have a word that means “cat.” If we want to speak to each other about cats, we will either have to invent a new term, and hope it will still communicate the full valence of the old word (rich with historic associations and symbolic overtones), or we will have to do without a word for “cat” at all. One might reasonably foresee, without charting all the particular specific mechanisms, that it might become harder to communicate an idea for which we no longer have any word.
Maybe not initially, but eventually you’d be a bit perturbed if I continued to say things like “it’s raining cats and cats” or “cats rule, cats drool.” You’d come to the conclusion that I’m either crazy or confused. If if you joined me in this nonsense and continued to refer to every furry, domestic animal with four legs and a tail as a “cat”, we’d soon all be crazy and confused.
Do words matter?
When we hear this reasoning, it’s simple to arrive at the need to create a new word for the new thing, idea or situation that has come about, instead of lazily stealing a pre-existing term. Why would you want this new term to be confused with the old thing?
Be creative. New ideas = new words.
Let me give you an example of where we have gone wrong.
“Awesome” is not a term for new board shorts, a TV show or band. Nope. There are words for those. Perhaps, “handsome”, “fascinating” or “exciting.”
But “awesome” is a term meaning “extremely impressive or daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension, or fear.” Put simply, it means “to inspire awe.”
If your clothing or the latest album release is extremely daunting or inspiring fear, you let me know — there are psychiatrists to help with those types of situations.
Yet, if you stand beside a thundering lightning storm, or on the edge of a cliff gazing out into the Rockies or the Himalayas… if you watch a baby being born or you observe the redemptive power of Jesus… you may rightfully use the word “awesome” to describe your experience.
You will be justified in describing the situation as “awesome” because it is reflective of God and his mighty power, creativity and beauty.
God alone is awesome.
Your board shorts? We have a word for that — they’re “cool.”
A few more examples
Starving. It takes roughly four weeks to begin starving to death. Unless you haven’t eaten in four weeks, allow me to suggest an existing term: “hunger”. You’re probably just “hungry”… maybe intensely so, but being familiar with the american diet, chances are that isn’t even true.
Love & hate. You don’t “love” or “hate” your new haircut. These words are far too powerful for use on temporary situations or inanimate objects. For believers, “Hate evil, love good.” [Amos 5:15] and note that your “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” [Romans 12:9]
Truth. In one of the most fascinating dialogues ever spoken, Pilate rhetorically asked Jesus, “What is truth” [John 18:38]. While Jesus didn’t answer him directly, I believe that truth was standing right in front of Pilate. At a bare minimum, I will argue that truth is absolute and cannot be relative.
Marriage. Marriage is not something to be thrown away casually with divorce. It is a life-long commitment between two people, publicly united as one through ceremony and privately though consummation, for the purpose of reflecting the Godhead, with the potential of procreation.
Your words matter. Engaging your intellect as it relates to your speech matters.
I close with these words by Alfred Lord Tennyson:
Follow the Christ, the King,
Live pure, speak true, right wrong, follow the King–
Else, wherefore born?