Someone I know pretty well, a doctoral candidate in philosophy, has lately been doing editorial work for an encyclopedia in order to earn some money on the side. When she’s engaged in that activity, she keeps at hand a stout dictionary published in 1911. That’s no surprise to me. While doing editing of my own, I fairly often refer to a large, comprehensive dictionary—a volume so heavy you can hardly lift it—that came out in 1919. For routine checking I use the same dictionary I used in college.
But I hear someone clearing his throat and getting ready to say, “You and the doctoral candidate should get new dictionaries. Don’t you know the language changes? How can you make do with dictionaries published 50 or 100 years ago?”
Yes, I know the language changes. Many new words—that ugly neologism “blogosphere” for instance—have entered into English in just the last few years. But the continuity of our language is vastly more important than its constant flux. That’s why dictionaries, whether old or new, that shed light on the state of the language as it was in the past are so important. Really to know what a word means now, you need to know what it meant long ago. Often that old meaning will tell you something useful, even necessary, about the new.
Recently I’ve been working on a modern English version of an early work by St. Thomas More. Not surprisingly, the pre-Elizabethan senses of words that More uses—“virtue” for example—time and again provide information essential to someone attempting to capture his meaning in today’s English.
Words are multi-layered links to the tradition and should be pondered and cultivated as such. Just now I’m puzzling over More’s repeated use of the word “cunning.” Today that means something like cleverness or slyness. But when I consult my 1919 dictionary, I learn that in More’s day “cunning” suggested the esoteric knowledge of magic and alchemy. That tells me something crucial about the point he’s making in the volume I’m working on. Now all I have to do is find an acceptable modern equivalent.
Or, moving from present to past, consider the word “blog” as in blogosphere. Blog is a contraction of web log. And “log,” according to a mini-essay in the big dictionary, is the name of a primitive navigational device used a millennium or more ago by Danish and Swedish sailors. Later, by extension, it came to signify the record of a voyage. I don’t know about you, but I find it stirring to learn that one of our Internet terms was first used by Scandinavian seafarers in the Middle Ages.
So much of the contemporary ethos expresses a born yesterday mentality—if something isn’t brand-new, it must be valueless. But that is a stunted, and sometimes dangerous, way of thinking. If we don’t learn from the past, whatever we do learn lacks a vital dimension. Our culture desperately needs to understand that.
So does our Church. Vatican Council II, as Pope Benedict keeps pointing out, was not a repudiation of the Christian past but a link in a chain joining the past, present and future of Christianity. And although I’m not a big Latin Mass enthusiast myself, I can understand the fundamental point made by those who are: Language has an essential role in keeping us in living contact with the tradition. When we begin to lose sight of that, we’re in serious trouble. Anybody want to borrow my dictionary?
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