The Faith of an Awesomely Tolerant Gentleman

Read again the phrase above. Do you feel confident that you even know what it likely means? I wish to submit a mild rant/lament/observation about the abuse of and change in use of words in the English language, as exemplified by this phrase.

As generations rise and fade into the next, new words are added into the lexicon of the language, and others fade from common use and knowledge. Others are redefined entirely. Since information and knowledge are best communicated over time through the written word, accuracy in word choices helps ensure that the author’s meaning can be known (postmodern language deconstructionists notwithstanding). So when words are redefined to a non-constructive purpose, they often lose their usefulness as meaning-carriers, and then must be scrutinized for what is really meant. Don’t get me wrong, context and authorial intent should always be important to charitable and honest individuals seeking to know the intended information being communicated by some writer; this is especially true the further removed in time a document is from the reader. Still, I feel a sense of loss when words change meaning with no enrichment to the language as a whole.

Using the first phrase above as an example, and taking the main words in reverse order, I’d like to explain further what I mean.2014-09-22 09.41.42

C.S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity describes the re-defining of the word “gentleman,” and indeed was the one who originally got me thinking along these lines:

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said – so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully – “Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?” They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, 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.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

Consider also the word tolerant. Defined by dictionary.com as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own,” this seems quite at odds with the way it is most often used today. More often it is used as if it meant if you have an opinion, practice, race, religion, nationality, etc. that differs with someone else’s, you must not say or imply that they are wrong. You must “accept” their views (another misused and abused word, there), and if you don’t, it is immoral and unloving for you to express that. Oddly, this turns out to be a usage of the word (I’m referring to tolerance again now) that is exactly the opposite of its original meaning. Besides, those who use tolerance in this way are not being tolerant, under this new definition, of those they disagree with. No, tolerance is not about agreement, it is fundamentally about disagreement and how one is to treat those with whom he disagrees. Without a disagreement, there can be no tolerance, and no need for it.

In my use of the word awesomely, I am referring to the overuse of superlatives. These are words such as excellent, magnificent, wonderful, marvelous, outstanding, etc; all are useful words with specific meanings. But can you (or even I) define these words distinctly from each other without using a dictionary? As with gentleman above, they all seem to be used anymore to express that “I like this.” Similarly, negatives are often used in this way, such as starvingdying (“I’m dying of heat!” “But it’s only 80 degrees”), addicted (as, “addicted to chocolate”) and hate (as in “I hate gassing up my car”). It seems to me that the overuse of superlatives and other such strong language is to give extra emotional weight to the words of the speaker to his audience. The trouble is, if we use the word awesome to describe our positive feelings about a sandwich we just ate, and then use the same word to describe God, it has made the concept rather tepid, has it not? And if we in one breath say “I hate gassing up my car” and in the next say something like “God hates sin,” we reduce the impact of the concept of hate, and make it something like an arbitrary taste or preference. As for words like starving, dying, and addicted, cavalier use of these words make light of those people who are facing actual starvation, addiction, and death.

Finally, the poor word faith. If any word needs to be taken in to an abuse shelter, this one certainly should have a place there too. Biblically, this word means something like “a reasoned trust” or “believing in what you can’t see based on the evidence of what you do see.” Unhappily, it seems that when people use the word faith now, all to often (even in the church) it has extra implied and unspoken words along with it, such as “leap of…” and “blind…,” and this causes a great deal of confusion about what true biblical faith really amounts to. It is for that reason that I agree with Greg Koukl that it may be time for Christians to jettison the word faith when speaking of the biblical concept, and instead use the idea of earned trust, as this word more accurately carries the meaning originally intended.

In what way can we reliably communicate with others the specific meaning of the information in our heads? The written or spoken word is the first, best, and most accurate tool we have available.  If we water down all our language so that words have no clear meaning, or worse, may be used equivocally to mean one meaning and its opposite, we have done violence to our ability to convey meaningful propositions and interpret the written or spoken words of others.

Those are my thoughts. What are yours? What other words have you come across that have been abused like these?

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