I am a bit of a word geek. I have a passing interest in where words and phrases come from. A few years ago I had a “Forgotten English” desk calendar which had a different word each day—such glorious terms as dringle (to waste time in a lazy, lingering manner), eargh (superstitiously afraid—from which we get eerie), and searcher (a civil officer employed in Glasgow to apprehend idlers in the streets during the time of public worship on Sunday).
Maybe if towns employed a few searchers to round up the dringlers on a Sabbath morning we won’t suffer from as much eargh. But fair enough, words drop out of usage and we no longer need to be familiar with them—and new words and terminology need to be defined.
In 2008 Oxford University Press, in updating their Junior dictionary, removed words like ‘bishop’, ‘chapel’, ‘goldfish’, ‘liquorice’, ‘buttercup’, and ‘heather’ and replaced them with words like ‘blog’, ‘mp3 player’, ‘cut and paste’ and ‘celebrity’.
But it struck me as interesting what has largely been dropped from the Junior Dictionary—words to do with rural life and the countryside, words to do with royalty and empire (this is the UK version after all), and more crucially as far as I’m concerned, words to do with Christianity and church life.
The following words no longer appear: abbey, aisle, altar, bishop, chapel, christen, disciple, minister, monastery, pew, psalm, pulpit, saint, sin, and devil, along with a few others.
It’s hardly a conspiracy against Christianity, unless you want to run with a joint conspiracy against the countryside too—but is it indicative of the world we live in? A world where children are seen as not needing to know these words in order to navigate their way through life?
Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, said of the changes, “We have a certain Christian narrative which has given meaning to us over the last 2,000 years. To say it is all relative and replaceable is questionable… The word selections are a very interesting reflection of the way childhood is going, moving away from our spiritual background and the natural world and towards the world that information technology creates for us.”
To be honest I am not that bothered by the omission of many of the religious terms above, but the omission of biblical words like ‘sin’ and ‘disciple’ does concern me. What are we saying about what our children need to know to understand both the world around them, and the world within them?
Secular psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger wrote in 1973(!), “The very word ’sin,’ which seems to have disappeared, was a proud word. It was once a strong word, an ominous and serious word. It described a central point in every civilized human being’s life plan and lifestyle. But the word went away. It has almost disappeared—the word, along with the notion. Why? Doesn’t anyone sin any more? Doesn’t anyone believe in sin?”
You see, if you don’t have a word like sin to define the problem, then you don’t have the framework to understand the solution. That’s why it’s important that our children know what words like sin mean—so that we can help them navigate their hearts. And when we tell them about sin we must always point them to the life-giving, life-saving love that can only be found in Jesus.
I wonder if these words are missing in life and conversation too, not just children’s dictionaries, and so the concepts that are part and parcel of the framework for understanding Christianity are being lost.
And preachers too, in all our efforts to preach in clear language not laden with evangelical-speak, need to ensure that we don’t skip over words like sin, or wrap up their concepts in something less threatening like ‘brokenness’ (although brokenness is part of the effect of sin). We may need to use clear and fresh ways to communicate, but let us make sure that they come with the punch and power of the terms we are explaining.