Change hasn’t changed

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Something that fascinated me as a college English major (other than the folly of my nebulous course of study) was the debate about language between the “prescriptives” and the “descriptives.” The “prescriptive” group said that language should adhere to prescribed standards and not change with the whims of culture. The “descriptive” camp said that language changes all the time and we should go with the flow.

I lean toward the latter view, though I realize things can go too far. (U R GR8 & I HEART U!!) But the evolution of language can’t be stopped. Especially by the frowny folks who correct everyone’s speech, otherwise known as the people you want to get away from. (“That is not correct, sir. The proper usage is ‘the people from whom you want to get away.’ And sticking out one’s tongue, sir, is considered rather gauche.”)

The example of language change I often think of, uh, I mean of which I often think, is the word “awful.” Today it’s used to describe something bad. The original meaning of the term, however, was “full of awe or reverence” as in “awe-full.” We won’t go back to using the word that way, but it would be fun to try. Here’s a song idea for opening a church service: “As I come into this place, a sense of awfulness fills my face.” OK, maybe that’s not so great. Which would make it awful in the modern sense.

You can find the old definition of awful in Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language from 1828. I recently got a facsimile of the volume as a gift. It’s interesting to browse for words that have changed or have gone out of use. One amusing entry I found is “acorned,” which means “furnished or loaded with acorns.” You know, those beret-capped nuts from oak trees. I can’t say I’ve heard anyone declare lately, “I’m all acorned up.” Perhaps acorns were more prominent in early American life than they are now.

Another old word that made me smile is “enthusiastical.” I thought that was just a comical, made-up way to say “enthusiastic.” But it seems that “enthusiastical” was once a common term for “highly excited.” In the 1828 dictionary I did not find “ginormous,” though.

A word I didn’t expect to see in the historic Webster’s is “Ketchup.” I hadn’t realized that term was so old. But in 1828 it didn’t refer to the tomato stuff we smear on hamburgers, but rather “a liquor extracted from mushrooms, used as a sauce.” In those days, I gather, you could ask for Ketchup on your steak without getting a condescending sneer from the waiter.

Trying to think of another term that might have changed in the last 180 years, I came up with “entitled.” The old Webster’s defines it as having a claim or a right to receive something, whereas my modern dictionary defines the word as, uh, having a claim or right to receive something. 

I guess the meaning of “entitled” hasn’t changed. But it seems like our culture’s perception of it has. People used to understand that they were entitled to prosperity if they worked for it, respect if they practiced honesty and reliability and happiness if they developed a positive outlook on life. Now many feel entitled to these things regardless of their efforts or behavior, or lack thereof. That sense of entitlement bugs a lot of people these days.

A word that hasn’t changed is “change.” In 1828 it meant, “to make different,” and today it still means, “to make different.” But the term has been prominent lately. A president just got elected with “change” as a campaign platform. That was interesting. It seems like half the people I know were giddy: “Change is coming! All our problems will be solved!” The other half was less enthusiastic: “No change, no way, no Bama!”

Between those two extremes is where real change happens. Changes our society needs—and there are plenty—don’t develop in an ideological vacuum but in the everyday efforts of life, relationships, work and service.

This is also true in our churches. When changes are proposed in a church setting, I’ve seen the same overreactions that happened in the presidential race. Some want to change everything, and others want nothing to change. Some want to trash all that’s gone before and start from scratch, others want to lock the doors and preserve their church experience like a museum.

Neither of these extremes is helpful. Change for change’s sake tends to be faddish and temporary. Resistance to change leads to irrelevance. As Christians we have a foundation that doesn’t change, which is the message and presence of Jesus. But as we follow Jesus we do change. We find new ways to reach out and meet needs and communicate the message, because the language of culture changes. 

Refusing to change with the times is like being enthusiastical about getting acorned. It just doesn’t translate.

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