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What Do Words Really Mean to our Contemporaries? February 7, 2011

Not long ago I was at church and we happened to sing a well known song called “Power in the Blood.” Here are a couple of lines from it:

Would you be free from your passion and pride?

There’s power in the blood, power in the blood.

Now what does that mean to our contemporaries? I fear it means “Would you like to be free of whatever it is animates you to get up in the morning? And would you like to lose your commitment to excellence in whatever you do, and be stripped of your human dignity?” To which most of our contemporaries would say, “No Way!”

I am hardly advocating changing the lyrics of the song! I like to keep in touch with the past. But when we are talking to the world we have to make sure that the words we are using actually mean to the people in the world what we hope they mean. C. S. Lewis essentially regarded himself as a ‘translator’ of theological concepts into a language that was understood by people in the mid 20th century. And, in a couple of essays in God in the Dock, he actually makes lists of words that have a different meaning among the people than in clerical and academic circles. An example in our early 21st century English is ‘schizophrenia,’ which, used by laypeople or metaphorically, actually means ‘multiple personality,’ a much rarer condition. There

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are also a lot of ‘false friends’ in older English. I read Pride and Prejudice some years ago and noticed that in Jane Austen’s work, to call someone ‘condescending’ is a compliment. At the same time, I understand that to call someone ‘enthusiastic’ was a serious insult, because it implied he was the sort of person who was always going around talking about how God told him this and God told him that.

One way we can keep up is by observing the Facebook and Twitter posts of those around us. Posts of that kind are often done in about as close to the actual spoken language as can be; certainly a far cry from the ‘literary language’ we used to write at school, which I don’t propose abandoning. But in order to communicate, say, humankind’s moral alienation from God to a generation for whom ‘pride’ is a virtue and ‘sin’ is something you go to LasVegas to do, we have to study their language as carefully as Wycliffe BibleTranslators studies the languages they work in.

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