The master of wordplay, Lewis Carroll died on this day, January 14th in 1898. He introduced us to Wonderland and it seems we are now a bit lost in it. As with Carroll’s tale, communication, and our collective conversation is today handicapped by the discounting and rebranding of words. When “spiritual” is good but “religious” is bad, we might think it sick or dope, and we might be right. No wait, that’s wrong. What?
“You’re not the same as you were before,” he said. You were much more… muchier… you’ve lost your muchness.”
In her book, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, Holly Ordway says:
Unfortunately, our language is subject to verbicide—the ‘murder’ of words through exaggeration or misuse, so that the original meaning is lost. Verbicide can kill words by distortion as well as by watering down their meaning, as in the use of ‘sinful’ to mean ‘enjoyable.’ If a delicious slice of chocolate cake can be ‘sinfully good,’ then the word ‘sin’ has no real meaning at all.
Verbicide can occur through carelessness, but it can also be deliberately cultivated by those who find it in their interests to render certain words empty of meaning. Authentic debate and discussion—like authentic democracy—are messy and discomfiting processes that require confronting ideas that are disagreeable, and accepting that you can’t always have things your own way. To raise an issue for discussion and argument means at least tacitly accepting that you might not be able to convince the other side that you’re right . . . and having to live with that. The alternative to authentic discussion is to manipulate circumstances such that the debate never happens, and the position that you favor becomes entrenched—or to manipulate language so that the other point of view becomes unsayable and eventually unthinkable.
We find this a lot in politics, but Republicans and Democrats aren’t the only ones who twist words for their own convenience.
What’s the difference between being tactful and being misleading?
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
ver•bi•cide \ˈvər-bə-ˌsīd\ noun
[Latin verbum word + English –cide] 1858
1: deliberate distortion of the sense of a word (as in punning)
2: one who distorts the sense of a word
Inc Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).
HAVE YOU COMMITTED VERBICIDE TODAY?
While Madison Avenue uses religious ideas and language, churchmen have adopted the techniques of Madison Avenue. If the advertiser, sometimes verging on sacrilege, borrows language from the churchman, placing idols behind altars, the churchman, sometimes verging on desacralization, borrows jargon and technique from the advertiser, placing altars behind idols. Incongruity between medium and message has no place in communication of Christian truth. The verbal medium must conform to the message, never vice-versa. Discusses a variety of religious doublespeak including rhetorical overkill, use of euphemism, sanctimonious stereotypes, and weasel words.
Kehl, D. G. “HAVE YOU COMMITTED VERBICIDE TODAY?” Christianity Today 1978, Vol. 22 (8), pp: 526–529. ISSN: 0009–5753
William Sailer et al., Religious and Theological Abstracts (Myerstown, PA: Religious and Theological Abstracts, 2012).
Dr. Holly Ordway is Professor of English and faculty in the online M.A. in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, specializing in cultural and imaginative apologetics.
She is also a Fellow of the Word on Fire Institute.
Dr. Ordway’s current writing project is a literary-critical study, Tolkien’s Modern Reading: Middle-earth Beyond the Middle Ages, to be published by Kent State University Press in 2020. It has received the 2018 Kilby Research Grant from the Marion E. Wade Center.