The Bible says: Every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue (James 3: 7, 8 ). What shall we do with the words that pour out of our mouths?
The Italians attempted a partial answer. Founded in 1583, their Accademia della Crusca (crusca means “bran” in Italian) tried to distinguish the pure part (the farina, or “whole wheat”) of Italian from the impure part (the crusca). The members of the Accademia had nicknames associated with corn and flour. The hall where they met had seats in the form of breadbaskets and backs in the shape of an oven slide. We might expect their motto to have something to do with “flour.” Instead, these poets and scholars mixed their metaphor (imagine!) by choosing a motto from a line in a poem by Francesco Petrarca: “She gathers the most beautiful flower.” By 1612, the Accademia published the first edition of its dictionary: the Vocabolario. The Accademia has produced many other dictionaries and is still the official authority in regard to Italian.
The French attempted an answer too. Twenty three years after the Italians published their dictionary, the Academie Francaise was founded in1635 by Cardinal Richelieu. Fifty-nine years later (1694), Academie published a four-volume Dictionnaire. During the French Revolution the Academie was suppressed (1793) but Napoleon Bonaparte restored it (1803). Its forty members are still the official authority in regard to French.
What about such a group of learned language overseers for us – we who attempt to speak and write English? Although many have desired such a society, it never came to be. Samuel Johnson (1709 -1784), in proposing his dictionary, spoke of attempting to civilize this unruly tongue. He wrote: I am frighted at (the) extent (of this language) – like the soldiers of Caesar look on Britain as a new world, which it is almost madness to invade. He hoped: I shall at least discover the coast, civilize part of the inhabitants, and make it easy for some other adventurer to proceed farther, to reduce them wholly to subjection, and settle them under laws (Priestly, “The Rudiments of English Grammar,” pp. 45,46).
But, the longer Johnson worked on his dictionary the more firmly he became convinced he need not enforce standards but describe the best of what he found. Did he have the sense that to treat English as static would be attempting by mere definition to explain away the mystery of God and one another? His friend, Thomas Warton wrote: “To fix a language has been found, among the most able undertakers, to be a fruitless project” (Priestly, 56,57).
It can be fruitless to “fix” a language because some words become outmoded. Language is alive; why retain a word that has become “obsolete?” Think of your introduction to Chaucer – so “obsolete” that much was incomprehensible. Our word is from Latin – obsoletus – “grown old, worn out,” – probably from ob – “away” + solere – “to be used to, to be accustomed.” We become accustomed to pushing obsolete things away.
It also can be fruitless to try to “fix” a language because of grammatical standards. Many of us have such an innate resistance to working through the rules of grammar that it is difficult for us to read with understanding the rule taught to help us understand the difference between will and shall.
“Will, in the first person, intimates resolution and promising (I will do my home-work); in the second and third person, will only foretells (“It will get done” is the same as “It is going to get done”)…Shall, on the contrary, in the first person simply foretells (“I shall do my homework” means “It is going to get done”); in the second and third persons, shall promises, commands or threatens” (You shall do your homework!) (parentheses not in the original quote) (Murray, Lindley,” in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).
And what happens when the words these rules “order” become obsolete? Lynch comments: “Many a schoolchild has been scolded for getting this (rule of will and shall) wrong, even though only a tiny portion of the English-speaking world now routinely uses shall in casual speech…(Shall) sounds irredeemably stuffy to most of today’s English speakers” (Lynch, p. 110).
“Irredeemably stuffy” – ouch! Ir – “not” + re – “back” + d– from the Old Latin habit of using – d– between vowels + emere “to take, buy, gain, procure.” Irredeemably stuffy” is obsolescence to the max. Combine “irredeemably” and “obsolescent” and we have a double death knell. “Irredeemably obsolescent” is as shatteringly prohibitive as Gandalf’s thunderous: “You shall NOT pass!”
Now I come to where I struggle. We grow accustomed to things becoming obsolete. I grew up using encyclopedias and library card catalog systems. Now my two year old grandson says: “Let’s Google it.” Boom boxes and cassette tapes along with VCR and VHS tapes were “in” but are now obsolete. Progress marches on. A recent cartoon shows Moses returning from Sinai with the Ten Commandments while the crowd is bowing before their new idol – not the golden calf – but the iPhone 5!
Here is what niggles my conscience and seeks to be spoken. In Jesus’ story about the two sons, one left home and one stayed. What united them was their avowed preference – not for each other or their father – but for their father’s stuff. And add to that our inexorable rush to new technology and our enchantment with youth and novelty. The all too easily avoidable question is this: “What happens when we get our categories confused and consider not some things – but some people – to be irredeemably obsolescent?”
As I write this, my parents are celebrating their 65th anniversary. Suzanne Somer’s “Forever Slim and Sexy” or “Spartan Warrior Workout: Get Action Movie Ripped in 30 Days” would NOT be a fitting gifts. My folks are 91. Dad uses a walker. Mom’s hip bothers her. They don’t drive. They are largely housebound. They answer the phone and we talk. When I feel like a nap, I call them and ask them to take one for me – they are my ‘designated nappers.’ They have grown old and feel worn out.
Are they obsolete?
The rush of our world implies: “Yes.”
I strike my staff in the ground and say: “No! In this shifting sea, the fixed land is God’s opinion. How he relates to Dad and Mom and how they relate to him is intrinsic to who they are. My parents are here until he, their Maker – the One who made them in his image – calls them home.” What God is weaving we may not see – or we may – like light transforming frost on bare branches. Wendell Berry writes: “We can live fully only by making ourselves as answerable to the claims of eternity as to those of time (Essay: “Thy Life’s a Miracle”).
Are they irredeemable?
As Christians we say: “Absolutely NOT!” They have been redeemed by what God has lavished upon them – the most costly gift this universe has ever known – the blood of the Lamb.
Why does God prolong their days?
Perhaps, so that I will learn some compassion – and, perhaps, you with me.
Perhaps, God willing, that bit of compassion will enlarge as we encourage each other to hear this one who has lost his voice – as we encourage one another to look again at (literally, re – “again” + spect – “see”= “respect”) that one we might otherwise rush past. “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again” (Shakespeare, “King Lear”).
And what happens in our otherwise depersonalizing vortex as we extend our care to words too? Perhaps some words of which we were ignorant or which were growing obsolescent are now anchoring part of our vocabulary! Godspeed!
Sometimes, one word is like one small act that connects us and is energized into friendship.
Take the word “irredeemable.” Who is irredeemable? A recent movie tells the story of a young author who finds a tattered manuscript – makes it his own and achieves fame and fortune. Then he tells his wife that it was not his. She turns her back on him. Is he irredeemable?
God gave his Best to “redeem” sinners like him – like us. The Latin is redemptio – “a buying back, releasing, ransoming.” Who cannot be bought back with the Highest Price of all? There is unique power to ransom in Jesus.
And, in God’s providence, there is uniqueness in this word, “redeem,” too. It could be re + emere. But Latin speakers found that awkward and added a “d” between the vowels. The OED tells us that “redeem” is practically the sole English word in which the added “d” survives.
Aha, one word – what a slender thread.
But what a word! – one slender/pregnant/dynamic word that fills us with hope. The One True Son comes to love sinners like us. Those otherwise irredeemable and soon to appear obsolescent, he redeems and promises to renew. Galatians 4:4 When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, 5 to redeem those under law that we might receive the full rights of sons. 6 Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”
Sucking out (some of) the marrow-nourishment from the bone-words with you,