February 13, 2014

Watching Your Language

Last month
when Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt snapped a selfie as she
sat between UK Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barak Obama, the
reporting of it in the international media and on the internet sparked an
explosive response. And predictably it generated a commentary that reflected
the reaches of the ideological extremes.

position is taken on its appropriateness, however, it may be said that the
incident graphically introduced the term “selfie” for a great many digital
immigrants—those not born in the age of information technology but becoming
familiar with it as adults. Until that time there were surely those who had
been unaware that a word had been coined for this increasingly popular act of
taking a photo of oneself with a mobile device.

Such is the
nature of language: it changes moment by moment.

And this
“constant change” (an oxymoron in its own right) has been accelerated by the
expanding influence of technology. Advances in the digital world have repurposed
old, familiar words with all-new meaning. Producers of dictionaries have been
compelled to add new definitions to words such as “mouse,” “icon,” “file,” “virus,”
and countless others.

have also created entirely new words for things never before possible.
magazine, which tries to position itself as pretty much the ultimate in
what is current, publishes a small monthly column called “Jargon Watch” to keep
readers informed of the latest in language. The December 2013 issue, for
example, defines “cli-fi” (“a subgenre of dystopian fiction . . . in which
climate change wreaks havoc on an otherwise familiar planet” and “Googleburger”
(“a lab-grown hamburger . . . funded by Google cofounder Sergey Brin as a
cruelty-free alternative to meat”).

There are
ways in which to confirm the legitimacy of words as they enter the language. It
used to be that every good home with any interest in things literate would
include in its library a solid Merriam-Webster or Funk & Wagnalls—four or
five hundred tree-based pages of solid, hardbound information to which to refer
for proper diction.

As the
raven said, however, “Nevermore.”

anyone seeking the definition of an unfamiliar word—if they wish to bother with
such—may still go to Merriam-Webster or Funk & Wagnalls or any of a number
of other authorities, but now it’s more likely to be through the use of mobile
devices. This ever-changing nature of language has led to a friendly form of
competition in which publications and other organizations select a “word of the

The Oxford English Dictionary always seems
to attract the most interest. Its process is described in this way: “Every
year, a panel of the prestigious publication’s lexicographers, consultants, and
linguists come together to decide which word deserves the coveted title. . . .
The decision is both subjective and objective; it relies on determining how
certain words had been illustrative of the cultural, social, and political
climate of the past year. Which words had ‘trended’ the most on Twitter or
Facebook? What one word can be used to
summarize the experiences of the average person (with an obvious bias toward
English-Speaking Western culture)?"

As it
happens, the word for 2013 by the
English Dictionary
was “selfie."3

In fact,
the transitory character of language challenges communication itself. “Words,”
says C. S. Lewis, “like every other medium, have their own proper power and
4 This is because words can be used with the utmost precision of a surgical
scalpel—or with the grossest recklessness of a sledgehammer.

Among an
array of topics pertaining to everyday life, the wisdom literature of Scripture
addresses the importance of effective communication. Whoever may have been the
author-editor of the book of Proverbs, surely one of the most memorable among
the included verses would be: “A word
fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Prov. 25:11).

In this context, the word “fitly”
suggests at least two meanings.

First, it would imply the importance
of exactness. If the intention is to express something of importance, the
meaning of each word must be accurate. Even in the most commonplace of communication—face-to-face,
email, social media, whatever—certainly it would be better to take care that
what is said is truly what is meant. C. S. Lewis again: “We had better
not follow Humpty Dumpty in making words mean whatever we please."

Second, the “word fitly spoken” would imply aptness.
Even the greatest of truths are at their most effective when they are conveyed at
the most appropriate moment. “A word spoken in due season, how good it is!” (Prov.

Many Bible commentators have pointed
out the timeliness of Jesus’ first coming to this earth. They have outlined the
particular circumstances of the singularity in human history when “the Word
became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). This, of course, was an expression
of the ultimate truth. It was God’s attempt to represent His character through
the life of His Son. Jesus Christ is the ultimate Word—the definitive apple of
gold in a setting of silver.

In a long-ago daily devotional book,
Walter R. L. Scragg, former General Conference director of communication, made
a worthy attempt to sum up Jesus as a communicator: “Throughout Jesus’ life His
flow of language, His wit, His forceful arguments, and His figures of speech
crackled through the air with the electric spark of life. He cut loose from the
platitudes and clichés of religion and spoke with freshness and vigor."

“Freshness and vigor” would make a
good model for the communication that we engage in every day, both in the
sending and in the receiving—what is said and what is read.

It has become clear that the use of
technology in interpersonal communication has gone beyond a mere means of
staying in touch with one another. For some it has provided what they consider
to be an audience. They have become friends with agendas. This in itself is not
an entirely unfortunate thing. But it does suggest a significant need for a
more critical use of language and technology.

And the words of the familiar hymn
by nineteenth-century poet Caroline M. Noel are all the more relevant in
seeking a wisdom that can come only from Christ:

Him subdue

that is not holy,

that is not true."

  1. “Jargon Watch,” WIRED, December 2013,
    p. 38.
  2. Http://www.tplibrary.org/libraryblog/tech-talk/and-oxford-english-dictionarys-word-year,
    accessed Jan. 11, 2014.
  3. Http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/press-releases/oxford-dictionaries-word-of-the-year-2013,
    accessed Jan. 11, 2014.
  4. C. S. Lewis, “Prudery and Philology,” in Present
    Concerns: Essays by C. S. Lewis
    (New York: Harcourt, 1955), pp. 88, 89.
  5. All scriptural references in this column are from the New King James Version of the Bible.
  6. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New
    York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960), p. 12.
  7. Walter R. L. Scragg, Such Bright Hopes (Hagerstown,
    Md.: Review & Herald, 1987), p. 146.
  8. Http://www.hymnary.org/text/at_the_name_of_jesus_every_knee_noel, accessed Jan.
    18, 2014.