SPidge Tales

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Death of Words

A beautiful woman walks down the street. Her radiant smile accentuates her wavy hair, brown eyes, shapely curves, hourglass figure, and perfect breasts and butt. That freckle on her left cheek sends me into a deep blush (you can tell I’m not a romance novelist). She is flanked on one side by a Rachel Dratch look-a-like, and, if I’m not mistaken, on the other side by a cross between Rosie O’Donnell and Roseanne.

“That woman in the middle is beautiful,” I say, mouth wide open, salivating like Pavlov’s dog at the ring of a bell.

“What about her two friends?” asks my female companion.

“They fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.”

“You are so judgmental,” huffs my female companion. “How can you call the one girl beautiful and not the other two? You are only looking at outward appearance. It is inner beauty that matters.”

The above conversation is fictional, but similar discussions happen all the time. One person will describe as beautiful someone’s outward appearance, while another will say that it is inner beauty, what the eye cannot see, that really matters. Yes, in the deepest, ‘truest’, sense, it is inner beauty that matters. But if we start using words in their ‘truest’ sense, they risk losing descriptive power and become meaningless.

We all know the word “gentleman.” Gentleman comes from the Latin “gentiles,” meaning a man from a good family. It later came to be a descriptive word for a man of noble rank or honor. Unfortunately, not all “gentlemen” acted virtuously or treated others honorably. Because of this, people began to say that the mark of a ‘true’ gentleman is not his official title or rank, but the way he treats others. While this is ‘true’ in the deepest sense, the unfortunate result is that now the word “gentleman” is nothing more than a synonym for nice guy. It no longer has descriptive power.

Similarly, the word “Christian” faces this same danger. In its descriptive sense, “Christian” is a word we apply to one who believes in Jesus Christ and the teachings of Christianity. Rightfully, it is pointed out that any ‘true’ Christian is a good person who serves others. But again, focusing exclusively on the ‘truest’ sense of the word can lead to “Christian,” like “gentleman,” becoming a synonym for nice person and no longer helpful in describing any particular person.

Why do we take previously descriptive terms such as gentleman, Christian, and beauty, strip them of their outwardly descriptive power, and find their ‘truest’ sense by turning them into synonyms for internal characteristics such as ‘good’ or ‘honorable?’ For, there are many descriptive words that become synonyms for value judgments. Old-fashioned rarely means “antique” or “from the past.” It now means “not as good as the things we use now.” “Medieval” no longer means “from the Middle Ages.” It means “bad” or “intolerant” or any other negative term you can think of. “Modern” and “current” no longer mean “pertaining to the present day.” They are synonyms for “good” or “worthy.”

I think it is a combination of relativism and conceit. Because of moral and cultural relativism, we no longer believe in any absolute value for concepts such as “good” or “bad.” God forbid we say one thing is better or worse than another. In reality, we cannot escape making value judgments. If we never decided that one thing is better than another, we would never make any decisions. So, to be fashionable, we substitute words like “modern” to describe the things we like and call those awful traits “medieval” and those backward people “dinosaurs,” because what can be further in the past (meaning what can be worse)?

Don’t take it from me. Take it from a great classic author (Yes, classic means in the past, but things from the past can be as good as, if not better than, modern things). C.S. Lewis, in the book “On Stories and Other Essays on Literature,” writes a great essay titled “The Death of Words.” For a better understanding of this issue, I recommend you read it, since he is a far greater and far more entertaining writer than I.


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