I had an argument a little while back with my then-five-year-old daughter. We were in a department store, waiting while her older sister tried on clothes. Baby Girl the Second had carried a blanket in with her, and was passing the time playing dress-up herself, draping it this way and that, posing, asking, “Don’t I look divine?” The gentleman waiting for his wife shot a bemused glance our way when I answered, “No, divine is what God is. You’re pretty.” This went on for several minutes, with BGS declaring ever more emphatically, “Well, divine means pretty to me.”
I got the feeling that the waiting gentleman thought I was being rather legalistic with a small child on a matter that wasn’t really important. And I have a pretty good idea which of BGS’ books planted the mis-definition in her head – a cute series about a little girl who loves big, fancy words and defines them parenthetically, but now that I think of it, not always very accurately, for her audience.
What’s the big deal? No kingdoms are going to rise and fall on the misuse of a word by a five-year-old girl in greater suburbia. I understand that. And despite my upbringing, I don’t actually believe we’re likely to be struck by lightning due to an accidental misappropriation of an attribute of the Almighty. But the erosion of language is a big deal.
Words matter. Words contain and convey power, and words have precise meanings, and the gradual alteration of the meanings dilutes or redirects the power. As the process goes on, the current usage of a word may be so far removed from its original intent as to render it virtually meaningless. Gentleman, for instance. It once described a very specific status, that of being well-educated, well-bred, and well-to-do. The world has changed, and perhaps it’s of little consequence that gentleman now indicates simply a nice, well-mannered, preferably well-groomed, person of the male gender. And how about nice, while we’re here? It used to mean fastidious, exacting of great precision. Maybe it’s not earth-shaking that today, as C.S. Lewis points out in the preface to Mere Christianity, “it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A ‘nice’ meal only means a meal the speaker likes.)”
The subtle shift of the meanings of other words, however, can have far-reaching effects. Think about tolerance. Equality. Christian. What happens when freedom means one thing to you, and a different thing to me?
This piece was first published as “The Power of Words, Part Three” on http://www.booksbybecka.com on October 16, 2012.