Words have power. In high school, Bro. George began Senior English, “In the beginning was the word…” (Jn 1:1). Words form our sense of self. Francis Bacon wrote, “Reading makes a full man; conference makes a ready man; writing makes an exact man.” Whole civilizations have coalesced around words. Italy’s fractious provinces and principalities found common identity in Dante’s Comedia Divina (written in vernacular Italian) long before they identified with the tricolour flag. The British established the architecture of modern commerce and globalism by spreading their language to the 25% of the world’s population once held under their imperial sway. Gandhi, Dr. King, and many others have moved whole populations to control just anger, channeling it into effective non-violent protest. And most recently, consider the “Washington Redskins” (need I say more?). Words have power.
That’s why today’s Washington Post article “Redefining the N-Word,” by D. Sheinin and K. Thompson is so fascinating. Before going any further, let me say: This post is not meant to come down on any side of any argument about any word. Today, I’m marveling at the process of talking about words, and a very few of the many phenomena that influence that social conversation. The WP article in question is spurred by he NFL’s latest attempts to ban the n-word from use on the field. It raises some interesting questions (some in the article, some just in my own musing):
Do words have an absolute / fixed – value? …or do words depend wholly on context for their fullest definition? In English, probably a little of both… and when a word seems to move between those to categories confusion and concern result.
What is the role of history in language? Throughout English history, words have morphed in meaning and weight. What seems to be so new is the speed with which words change… Has there ever been a time when a word (e.g. the ’n-word’) has -in the course of one generation- so radically and frequently changed? What role has instant print, radio and now digital media played in that process?
Can language be controlled by coercive force (e.g. a school district …or here, the NFL)? …and even if it can be so controlled, should it be so controlled? Does today’s article display features of Orwell’s “1984,” or Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”?
Traditionally linguistic questions could find resolution… a final stamp of (dis)approval, either in academia or in the daily language of civil government. Does such a lexical court of final appeal exist today? Has English, at least in the U.S., split into so many mutually exclusive socio-cultural sub sets that emotionally charged words like “Redskins” or the “n-word” will forever be without final definition?
I dont’ have a final answer to any of these questions, but ongoing debates about words can serve as a great forum for our own personal formation as each of us strives to use language prudently and temperately for the good of others and the glory of God.