The Essential Role of Language

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?

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Cooky642

    No, thank you, Mr. Shaw; I have one of my own. In mine, the word “gay” is defined as “happy, light-hearted, vital”. How such a word became attached to homosexuals is irritating. While I have seen homosexual people act happy and light-hearted and, even, vital, when you get beneath the surface, they are none of those things. So, I simply refuse to use the word in its current context.

    Or, take another example. It has become quite unremarkable to hear even very young children (not to mention folks old enough to know better) take God’s Name in vain or use the Name of Our Lord to express frustration and disgust. I’ve only had one opportunity with one person to express my indignation. Her response was, “Oh, please! It’s only a word”. If it’s “only a word” (like any other word), why couldn’t she say, “Joe damn it”, or “Dan-iel Christ”? She was quick to inform me of my “puritanical ignorance”, and laughed it off. But, within weeks, I noticed she dropped both “words” from her vocabulary.

    I’m well aware that a dictionary is not listed in Ephesians 6. Perhaps, it should be.

  • Warren Jewell

    Cookie, you won’t find a ‘neologism’ anywhere in Scripture because the basic, simple, direct and profound meanings of words were respected and honored. It is to this less inane and specious, and more profound and immanent use of words to which Mr. Shaw alludes. And, no dictionary was very practical, given no printing presses. As well, any person of education, such as a studious rabbinical candidate, would have touch with several languages. Correspondingly, for centuries, up to some few years back, seminarians had to give study to Latin (of course), Greek and Hebrew as part of their studies. Members of missionary orders then may additionally study several languages from lands to which they might be sent.

    Plus, even with no real education folks had to develop understanding of their languages as they lived in need of words for effective communication. Part of our own integral Mass readings, in our communal groupings, came from the need of the educated celebrant giving long homilies of explaining what might not yet be understood for unfamiliarity with vocabulary. I imagine that Q&A Bible study frequently followed the Mass.

    Notice in the foreign expressions of modern-language texts that the old language needs less words and has most direct application. Nuances are limited and ‘euphemism’ becomes apparent as the modernist neologism it is.

    And, of course, knowledge of just about anything without significant footing (as one can own) in history is as if one would think to know of oceans from where in places they are but three inches deep. And, therefore, ‘God’ is ‘just a word’ – His transcendent concept from more profound understanding (EDUCATION!) has been lost.

    (Let’s not get me started, eh?)

  • Christi Derr

    Thank you Mr. Shaw! I love discussions of language!

    My pet peeve you ask? The “non sexist” language crowd misusing the word person! The whole philosophical aspect of the word is missing (as in One God three persons, and angels are persons) and it has become a clumsly and incorrect way of replacing “man.” Man was, incidently, was a neutral noun in old english, so changing it was completely unneccessary.

  • noelfitz

    I wonder are old dictionaries the best. If so would one like to use that of Dr Johnson? He had no time for namby-pamby political correctness.

    His views are interesting.

    Americans “are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.”

    Ireland is “Worth seeing, but not worth going to see.”

    The finest sight a Scottish person can see is the high road leading to England.

    However he did admit that “The Irish are a fair people; they never speak well of one another.”

    Some of his better definitions are given in

  • goral

    Mtr. Shaw / don’t you be dissin’ us out dere in the blogosfere ” – /