Feature

Gary B. Swanson

now retired, recently served as associate director of the 
General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department.

Watching Your Language

Last month when Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt snapped a selfie as she sat between UK Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barak Obama, the reporting of it in the international media and on the internet sparked an explosive response. And predictably it generated a commentary that reflected the reaches of the ideological extremes.

Whatever position is taken on its appropriateness, however, it may be said that the incident graphically introduced the term “selfie” for a great many digital immigrants—those not born in the age of information technology but becoming familiar with it as adults. Until that time there were surely those who had been unaware that a word had been coined for this increasingly popular act of taking a photo of oneself with a mobile device.

Such is the nature of language: it changes moment by moment.

And this “constant change” (an oxymoron in its own right) has been accelerated by the expanding influence of technology. Advances in the digital world have repurposed old, familiar words with all-new meaning. Producers of dictionaries have been compelled to add new definitions to words such as “mouse,” “icon,” “file,” “virus,” and countless others.

Technocrats have also created entirely new words for things never before possible. Wired magazine, which tries to position itself as pretty much the ultimate in what is current, publishes a small monthly column called “Jargon Watch” to keep readers informed of the latest in language. The December 2013 issue, for example, defines “cli-fi” (“a subgenre of dystopian fiction . . . in which climate change wreaks havoc on an otherwise familiar planet” and “Googleburger” (“a lab-grown hamburger . . . funded by Google cofounder Sergey Brin as a cruelty-free alternative to meat”). 1

There are ways in which to confirm the legitimacy of words as they enter the language. It used to be that every good home with any interest in things literate would include in its library a solid Merriam-Webster or Funk & Wagnalls—four or five hundred tree-based pages of solid, hardbound information to which to refer for proper diction.

As the raven said, however, “Nevermore.”

Today anyone seeking the definition of an unfamiliar word—if they wish to bother with such—may still go to Merriam-Webster or Funk & Wagnalls or any of a number of other authorities, but now it’s more likely to be through the use of mobile devices. This ever-changing nature of language has led to a friendly form of competition in which publications and other organizations select a “word of the year.”

The Oxford English Dictionary always seems to attract the most interest. Its process is described in this way: “Every year, a panel of the prestigious publication’s lexicographers, consultants, and linguists come together to decide which word deserves the coveted title. . . . The decision is both subjective and objective; it relies on determining how certain words had been illustrative of the cultural, social, and political climate of the past year. Which words had ‘trended’ the most on Twitter or Facebook? What one word can be used to summarize the experiences of the average person (with an obvious bias toward English-Speaking Western culture)?" 2

As it happens, the word for 2013 by the Oxford English Dictionary was “selfie."3

In fact, the transitory character of language challenges communication itself. “Words,” says C. S. Lewis, “like every other medium, have their own proper power and limitations." 4 This is because words can be used with the utmost precision of a surgical scalpel—or with the grossest recklessness of a sledgehammer.

Among an array of topics pertaining to everyday life, the wisdom literature of Scripture addresses the importance of effective communication. Whoever may have been the author-editor of the book of Proverbs, surely one of the most memorable among the included verses would be: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Prov. 25:11). 5

In this context, the word “fitly” suggests at least two meanings.

First, it would imply the importance of exactness. If the intention is to express something of importance, the meaning of each word must be accurate. Even in the most commonplace of communication—face-to-face, email, social media, whatever—certainly it would be better to take care that what is said is truly what is meant. C. S. Lewis again: “We had better not follow Humpty Dumpty in making words mean whatever we please." 6

Second, the “word fitly spoken” would imply aptness. Even the greatest of truths are at their most effective when they are conveyed at the most appropriate moment. “A word spoken in due season, how good it is!” (Prov. 5:23).

Many Bible commentators have pointed out the timeliness of Jesus’ first coming to this earth. They have outlined the particular circumstances of the singularity in human history when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). This, of course, was an expression of the ultimate truth. It was God’s attempt to represent His character through the life of His Son. Jesus Christ is the ultimate Word—the definitive apple of gold in a setting of silver.

In a long-ago daily devotional book, Walter R. L. Scragg, former General Conference director of communication, made a worthy attempt to sum up Jesus as a communicator: “Throughout Jesus’ life His flow of language, His wit, His forceful arguments, and His figures of speech crackled through the air with the electric spark of life. He cut loose from the platitudes and clichés of religion and spoke with freshness and vigor." 7

“Freshness and vigor” would make a good model for the communication that we engage in every day, both in the sending and in the receiving—what is said and what is read.

It has become clear that the use of technology in interpersonal communication has gone beyond a mere means of staying in touch with one another. For some it has provided what they consider to be an audience. They have become friends with agendas. This in itself is not an entirely unfortunate thing. But it does suggest a significant need for a more critical use of language and technology.

And the words of the familiar hymn by nineteenth-century poet Caroline M. Noel are all the more relevant in seeking a wisdom that can come only from Christ:

“Let Him subdue

All that is not holy,

All that is not true." 8


  1. “Jargon Watch,” WIRED, December 2013, p. 38.
  2. Http://www.tplibrary.org/libraryblog/tech-talk/and-oxford-english-dictionarys-word-year, accessed Jan. 11, 2014.
  3. Http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/press-releases/oxford-dictionaries-word-of-the-year-2013, accessed Jan. 11, 2014.
  4. C. S. Lewis, “Prudery and Philology,” in Present Concerns: Essays by C. S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, 1955), pp. 88, 89.
  5. All scriptural references in this column are from the New King James Version of the Bible.
  6. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960), p. 12.
  7. Walter R. L. Scragg, Such Bright Hopes (Hagerstown, Md.: Review & Herald, 1987), p. 146.
  8. Http://www.hymnary.org/text/at_the_name_of_jesus_every_knee_noel, accessed Jan. 18, 2014.
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