omewhere in the weary midwest, I drove past a billboard housing an advertisement from McDonald’s. Gluten and ground beef glared at me above an annotation reading: “100% Beef. 100% Bliss.”
“Marge,” I screamed to my truck. “That’s ground for a class-action lawsuit! How dare they associate “bliss” with burgers — one may as well associate ecstasy with-”
I then drove past an advertisement for a condom proclaimed as “pure ecstasy.”
Marge was unresponsive. I was pensive. The condom ad worked better than the burger, but there was irony in the association. Ecstasy comes from ex-stasis, to “go outside of oneself,” which seems precisely the component of sex the condom is implemented to prevent. But it seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, that there is a decline in our language that mirrors a decline in our culture at large.
I take my hat off to the linguists who rearrange their pompous distaste of popular slang long enough to appear on NPR and advocate the inclusion of “blog” and the lower-case “internet” into the dictionary. “Language is a living thing,” they say, and sure, who could argue? But just because a thing is alive does not mean it is living well, and the fact that language changes says nothing about the quality of the change.
We had an hour left of our commute, so I engaged Marge in a dialogue.
“To analyse the health of a body part, what must we know?”
Marge didn’t know.
“Surely, one must understand what a particular body part is for in order to say whether it is healthy or not?”
“You’ll hardly be able to judge whether a tongue is healthy if you think it exists for lifting weights rather than for speech and taste.”
“You could hardly comment on the health of a breast if you think it exists solely for the male gaze rather than for the nourishment of the infant.”
Marge made the noise she always makes when she means to say “you’re bringing up controversial points in a dialogue that is supposed to be rooted in truths that everyone can agree with.”
“So too,” I said, ignoring her, “with language. To ascertain whether a language is healthy, one must know what a language is for. Only then could we judge whether a language is attaining its proper end.”
Marge was quiet. I don’t think she understood that I was drawing the truth out of her, that she has always been pregnant with it, and that the process of questioning is the midwifery that brings her to birth.
“Now language is made up of words, correct?”
Marge said something about it “including gestures.”
“And the purpose of a word is to indicate a meaning, correct? I make the sound “coffee” and by it I indicate, not a mere sound, but the meaning of the word coffee — that darksome, delicious beverage. Correct?”
She growled. This either means “you can’t just put ‘correct’ at the end of a statement and call it a question” or “I need an oil change.”
“Quite right, Marge. Then it would follow that the purpose of a language, made up as it is of words which signify and deliver meanings, is to allow us to grasp, signify and convey as many meanings as possible.
Imagine a world in which one had a word for “coffee,” a word for “car” — but no word for “bliss.” Would we not say that language could be positively developed by the introduction of a word that signified and conveyed the experience of “bliss” as a unique phenomenon, so that humanity could communicate their experiences of “bliss” to each other and understand what the other was speaking about? But if this is the case, it seems to follow that a language is healthy insofar as it gives us access to more and more meanings, and that it is unhealthy insofar as it loses access to more and more meanings.”
I was really on a roll now.
“I can tell you want me to get to my point, so stop interrupting and let me get to it. A thing was once described as “awesome” if it inspired the unique emotion of awe, as in, ‘our God is an awesome God.’ Now “awesome” simply means “positive,” as in “that burger was an awesome burger.” A thing was once described as “terrible” if it inspired the unique emotion of terror, as in Dostoevsky’s “the awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible.” Now “terrible” simply means “negative,” as in “I’m a terrible person,” just as “horrible” no longer indicates the unique value that inspires the emotion of horror, but, again, the merely negative, as in ‘I had a horrible day.’
My point is not that these words should not be allowed to change. Let bliss mean “a sensation of salted beef,” let “sublime” indicate a ska band, let “radical” mean cool, and let “cool” mean “positive.” Let every word be shuffled and reshuffled in the endless game of human development until, just as every atom in the body is replaced and yet I remain, so every word could be replaced and yet the English language would remain. Change is not an indication of decline any more that it is an indication of ascent. But if a word acquires a new meaning without some other word rising up to express its original meaning, then, surely, we have a measurable decline — a decline in our human capacity to refer ourselves to a particular reality. And my fear, Marge, is that there are no words rising up to replace what was once indicated by the “awesome,” the “sublime,” the “terrible,” or even the “great.” Terrible means “bad,” and no word has risen up to indicate that unique quality of the terror-inducing object, which is by no means “bad,” but overwhelming, in the light of which one’s own existence appears to be contingent, secondary — irrelevant.
Verbal loss does not indicate an evolution of language but a lack of human contact with the meaning of our lost words. If we are getting rid of words that refer to unique, unrepeatable experiences, it is probably because we aren’t having those experiences any more. So it is no surprise that the sinkhole of the English language is planted firmly in the religious sphere. As we practice the awkward art of secularism, we lose religious experience, and thus it is precisely those words marking out uniquely religious experiences that are being slowly transmuted to mean the merely “positive” or “negative” — and without replacement. We are fast approaching a total lack of comprehension between those who have been fed on the language of the Saints and those who have not.”
“Sir, that does sound disastrous, but you do owe $4.75.”
“Not again! I didn’t mean to take the toll road. How long have I been here?”
“You rolled up while making your primary claim — that a language can be said to suffer a decline if a word acquires a new meaning without some other word rising up to express its original meaning.”
“Everyone is honking at you, yeah. But listen, sir-”
“Thanks, but before you go, consider: Perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing, to see a great yawn open up between the language of the Saints and the language utilized by beef and condom peddlers. You argue that a loss of specific words follows on a loss of real encounters with the meanings that those words express. Well, let the heathens be struck dumb as the Lord hides his awful face from them; let the ancient fire of human experience and its expression grow cool; may they shiver in the poverty of their expressions, as their every diverse word is reassigned to indicate the “likeable” and the “dislikeable.” In such a winter of words, even the most mediocre of Christian vocabularies will appear like a hearth.
Imagine, my friend, if you lived through thirty years of Instagram posts and suffered from a shriveled heart, the sum total of your affective sphere being like, dislike, arousal, and boredom. Wouldn’t an encounter with a person who confidently conveys the experience of holy terror; who seeks, for himself, not the likeable, but bliss; who takes charity to be an ecstasy of his soul; who trembles in awe; who knows the joy of abasement; who desires fear in right measure; and otherwise experiences thick sections of the real that seem to elude the narrow corridors of post-modernity; wouldn’t such a distinction between the world of the godless and the godfilled be an undeniable proof of the primary claim of the pious — that right-relation with God reveals the world in all its utterable complexity? Wouldn’t you wish to know the reason for the religious man’s untrammeled speech?”
“Maybe,” I said. “But I’m afraid that, in a world in which everything is merely likeable or dislikable, a man with a rich affective sphere will probably just appear annoying. Come on, Marge, let’s go home.”
So we drove on through the stupefied midwest, past billboards and screens that I long to forgive. After all, they know not what they say.