When I was in High School I developed a fascination with radio broadcasting by working at a student radio station, which later became WKDS 89.9 FM. I even worked at WYYY, WKMI, WBUK, and WQLR. I also loved to compete in both Debate and Forensics. And no, it waa not a student lead CSI team, but according to the National Forensic League, forensic competition is “a contest between individuals or teams in various argument and advocacy skills.” In other words, we created and presented speeches.
The events I loved to compete in were Men’s Oratory and Story Telling. I was terrible in Extemporaneous Speeches. Not because I couldn’t speak on the spur of the moment, but you had to be prepared to speak on any of several specific current events, and at the time, that didn’t interest me.
I am also very cognizant of the words that I use. Words mean something and, as my family will attest, I am very literal with the words I speak and hear (If you tell me your are going to “run to the store,” my reply will be, “You better drive, it’s faster.” Or whenever I see a menu that that claims that I can order a “Home Cooked Pie,” I have to wonder whose home it was cooked in. Often my kids would ask me to “make” some eggs for them. Well, that’s kind of difficult for me to make. However, I will prepare some eggs for them. Yesterday I was going to order a “Turkey and Bacon Melt,” but I couldn’t figure out how they melted the turkey and bacon — but was fascinated to discover how they did it!).
As I explained in another message, when my kids were young, I used to read bedtime stories to them and afterward, I would sometimes ask. “So, what did you think of the book?” More often than not, the answer was a simple “Good.” I told them that the word “good” was banned. The book could be funny, boring, interesting, scary, lovely, awful, delightful, or a combination of terms. Anything but good! It is time to give the old and tired words “good” and “bad” a well-deserved rest. (I was such a tough dad).
I think the same applies to people. Oh, not that the old and tired need to be given a well-deserved rest, but that people are rarely just good or bad. Somebody could be ebullient, which means Bubbling with enthusiasm or excitement; or they could be tremulous if they are timid or nervous. Some people are pavid which means that they are exhibiting or experiencing fear, or being timid.
I feel the same way about many other words. I will argue that the word “awesome” only applies to Yahweh. Think of it. Awesome means: amazing: inspiring awe or admiration or wonder . . . that seems to describe our God quite well don’t you think? I may appreciate Chicago, but I wouldn’t say Chicago was “awesome.”
As I continually told my kids, “Words mean things.” What I didn’t tell them is that, over time, words change their meaning, and sometimes we can’t understand their etymology. Sometimes these changes occur right under our noses (e.g., unique coming to mean “very unusual” rather than “one of a kind”) — and for those of us who are literalists, it can be quite disconcerting. How in the world, we ask, can we communicate effectively if our words are continually changing?
Yep, as long as there have been words and speakers to speak them, words have been changing their meaning. Recently I found a small sampling of words that have changed over the years.
- Nice: This word used to mean “silly, foolish, simple.” Far from the compliment it is today!
- Silly: Meanwhile, silly went in the opposite direction: in its earliest uses, it referred to things worthy or blessed; from there it came to refer to the weak and vulnerable, and more recently to those who are foolish.
- Awful: Awful things used to be “worthy of awe” for a variety of reasons, which is how we get expressions like “the awful majesty of God.”
- Fizzle: The verb fizzle once referred to the act of producing quiet flatulence (think “SBD”); American college slang flipped the word’s meaning to refer to failing at things.
- Wench: A shortened form of the Old English word wenchel (which referred to children of either sex), the word wench used to mean “female child” before it came to be used to refer to female servants — and more pejoratively to wanton women.
- Fathom: It can be hard to fathom how this verb moved from meaning “to encircle with one’s arms” to meaning “to understand after much thought.” Here’s the scoop: One’s outstretched arms can be used as a measurement (a fathom), and once you have fathoms, you can use a fathom line to measure the depth of water. Think metaphorically and fathoming becomes about getting to the bottom of things.
- Clue: Centuries ago, a clue (or clew) was a ball of yarn. Think about threading your way through a maze and you’ll see how we got from yarn to key bits of evidence that help us solve things.
- Myriad: If you had a myriad of things 600 years ago, it meant that you specifically had 10,000 of them — not just a lot.
- Naughty: Long ago, if you were naughty, you had naught or nothing. Then it came to mean evil or immoral, and now you are just badly behaved.
- Eerie: Before the word eerie described things that inspire fear, it used to describe people feeling fear — as in one could feel faint and eerie.
- Spinster: As it sounds, spinsters used to be women who spun. It referred to a legal occupation before it came to mean “unmarried woman” — and often not in the most positive ways, as opposed to a bachelor.
- Bachelor: A bachelor was a young knight before the word came to refer to someone who had achieved the lowest rank at a university — and it lives on in that meaning in today’s B.A. and B.S degrees. It’s been used for unmarried men since Chaucer’s day.
- Flirt: Some 500 years ago, flirting was flicking something away or flicking open a fan or otherwise making a brisk or jerky motion. Now it involves playing with people’s emotions (sometimes it may feel like your heart is getting jerked around in the process).
- Guy: This word is an eponym. It comes from the name of Guy Fawkes, who was part of a failed attempt to blow up Parliament in 1605. Folks used to burn his effigy, a “Guy Fawkes” or a “guy,” and from there it came to refer to a frightful figure. In the U.S., it has come to refer to men in general.
- Hussy: Believe it or not, hussy comes from the word housewife (with several sound changes, clearly) and used to refer to the mistress of a household, not the disreputable woman it refers to today.
- Egregious: It used to be possible for it to be a good thing to be egregious: it meant you were distinguished or eminent. But in the end, the negative meaning of the word won out, and now it means that someone or something is conspicuously bad — not conspicuously good.
- Quell: Quelling something or someone used to mean killing it, not just subduing it.
- Divest: 300 years ago, divesting could involve undressing as well as depriving others of their rights or possessions. It has only recently come to refer to selling off investments.
- Senile: Senile used to refer simply to anything related to old age, so you could have senile maturity. Now it refers specifically to those suffering from senile dementia.
- Meat: Have you ever wondered about the expression “meat and drink”? It comes from an older meaning of the word meat that refers to food in general — solid food of a variety of kinds (not just animal flesh), as opposed to drink.
- Gay: Originally meant “full of joy, merry; light-hearted, carefree;” then began to mean “wanton, lewd, lascivious.” By the 1890s it had an overall tinge of promiscuity — a gay house was a brothel. The suggestion of immorality in the word can be traced back at least to the 1630s.
As one commentator explained, “We love to play with words and in the process, we change the language.”
Another word you may be familiar with is “Gumption.” You see, if you have gumption, you have guts. People with gumption are determined and full of courage — and common sense, too. If you give up easily and don’t have a lot of confidence or smarts, then you lack gumption. It takes gumption to get things done — especially difficult things. Someone who takes risks without being afraid has gumption. Having gumption is like having “chutzpah.” My guess is that all of us could use more gumption as we relate to our Heavenly Father!
While digging into this, I found some common synonyms to gumption. For instance, you could say, a person with gumption, has backbone, fortitude, guts or grits. Many years ago they referred to it as, Moxie. All of these describe someone who possesses a “strength of mind that enables them to endure adversity with courage.” I like that!
I even discovered a new synonym for gumption, it is, sand. How that came about, I have no idea, but it does remind me of a story about Frank Weston Sanford, who was the founder and leader of an apocalyptic Christian sect, informally called “Shiloh” and eventually known officially as “The Kingdom.”
The story goes that a man named Miller came up to him and scornfully stated, “Jesus didn’t have any sand!”
Sanford replied, “Didn’t he? Well, He stretched out one hand and said to his captors, ‘Put a spike in there for Miller!‘ Then he stretched out the other hand and said, ‘Put another spike in there for Miller!‘ I don’t know if you have enough sand to follow Him, but don’t say He didn’t have any sand.”
You know, when I think about all of that, it leads me to ask the Lord to give me enough sand to take up my cross each day to follow Him. To help me ignore this world’s judgment and to take seriously His call on my life. How about you?
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