A tale of murder and woe…or something

I’d like to take this time to draw all of your attention to a tragedy that happens every day right before our eyes: verbicide, “the murder of a word.”[1] Each day, thousands of words are cut down thoughtlessly in a number of ways.

Inflation is one of the commonest; those who taught us to say awfully for ‘very’, tremendous for ‘great’, sadism for ‘cruelty’, and unthinkable for ‘undesirable’ were verbicides.… But the greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them.”[2]

To Lewis’ list of verbicides, today we could add the whole i.m.-dialect (brb, lol, wtf), which is in my opinion the death of the English language. However, the most poignant point is, I think, the one about approval and disapproval.

My wife recently heard a man tell a story in which he got into a discussion with someone over what a family is. Our protagonist remarked, “It quickly became clear that we did not see eye to eye on the matter.” He went on to claim that he supported what he saw as the bible’s definition of a “family” as “a husband and wife and their children.” I think it is good that my wife didn’t have any heavy objects to hand or his story might have ended more abruptly.

Why the ire, you ask? Perhaps it’s partially hormones…she is eight months pregnant, after all. But I think the dominant cause for her anger is the fact that such a definition is deliberately exclusive, and as such, potentially harmful to those who do not fit this man’s “family mold.”

In the first place, that simply is not the definition of a family anywhere in the Bible. In fact, if someone can find a definition of “family” in the Bible, they’ll win a prize. (Not really. I’m not giving out prizes.) Furthermore, such a definition of family is patently inaccurate. If that man were (God forbid) to die in a car wreck, leaving his wife as a single mother, surely he would not hesitate to call them a family. Or, what if he and his wife both passed away and his children went to live with their grandparents or an aunt or uncle? What would they be if not a family? How does such a narrow definition relate his wife to his parents or him to his in-laws? Are they not family? How do adopted children fit into this scenario? What if a single parent adopts a child? His definition is certainly not the operable definition with which most people work on a daily basis. At least, I don’t think so. All this and we haven’t even considered this from the angle of non-western cultures without the myopic focus on the nuclear family.

To explain such an obviously deficient definition, we would do well to turn to Lewis again.

“The phenomenon ceases to be puzzling only when we realize that it is a tactical definition. The pretty word [in our case, family] has to be narrowed ad hoc so as to exclude something he dislikes.” [3]

When a person bothers to define a common word,

“The fact that they define it at all is itself a ground for scepticism. Unless we are writing a dictionary, or a text-book of some technical subject, we define our words only because we are in some measure departing from their real current sense, otherwise there would be no purpose in doing so.”[4]

Interestingly, although he considered himself a defender of ‘the Bible’s definition of family’, this man’s definition also excludes Jesus and his “family.” According to the New Testament Gospels, Jesus was born to an unwed, teenage girl and entrusted to the care of a man with no blood relation at all. I think that’s a bit ironic.

In close, I simply want to say that we, from whatever walk of life we may come, need to be very careful in the way that we define our words. Defining words to show approval and disapproval does not aid in effective communication (in any sense of the word) and, further, can have consequences far beyond what we intend. As Lewis, again, said, “We cannot stop the verbicides. The most we can do is not to imitate them.” [5]

Ben Edsall
[1] C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 7.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid, 19.
[4] Ibid, 18.
[5] Ibid, 132.


12 responses to “A tale of murder and woe…or something

    • Me too, Dave. Me too. I just got my Dad a copy of this book. You should borrow it when he is done; I think you’d like it.

  1. This post is not quite awesome. That would be inflation. Still, it is pretty good. I am not sure if it is verbicide or simply ignorance of what the bible really says about family. Unfortunately the Western traditional family(post industrial) gets touted as Biblical by certain high profile Evangelicals and the fact that this is unchallenged may stem from a general lack of biblical literacy.

    • Along side the general lack of biblical literacy in many of cases I think we have a “selective” biblical literacy: one which thinks they know just enough to support their erroneous opinions. Though, as a Regent alumnus, I feel obligated to choose the “both/and” option. That is, it is a combination of sophomoric biblical literacy and verbicide. Or, perhaps the former caused the latter.

  2. Hey Ben,

    I thought I’d be smarmy and just say that I “approve” your article.

    Thanks for Lewis’ thoughts on verbicide. They are helpful as we seek to interact in today’s IM world.

    I have a question though: Lewis can be a snob sometimes, and this may have been one of his moments. What do you think?

    • Hi Philip,

      Thanks for reading a commenting.

      I must say that I have never thought of Lewis as a snob. He was an extremely educated British man, and I suppose that that might come across as snobbish to Americans. Generally, however, I think he was a kind man with a good sense of humor, who was not at all reticent to share his (always erudite) opinion.

      All that to say, no. I don’t think he is being a snob here. In this particular book, I am struck not by any snobbishness, but by his patient scholarship (as it is a book on philology, based on some lectures to his students in Cambridge) and his unbelievable knowledge of literature from Homer to contemporary discussions of language…at least, contemporary for when the book was written.

      I recommend picking it up. The price of the book is worth it if only for the introduction, but each chapter has its own gems.

      • Ben, thanks for your response. I’ve read a ton of Lewis and by no means think he was a snob. I’ve just observed that he really takes people to task for their ignorance. An example is in “Surprised by Joy” (I think) when he was giving a list of books that anyone who claims to be “literate” should read (I should get the specific quote for this).

        But then, you’re right, he was a patient teacher as well. He is one of my favorite authors both for his clarity, empathy and beautiful imagination. Labeling him as a snob would be a gross error. Though I’m sure he sinned occasionally :). Thanks for your gentle response. And for you recommendation of the book. I’ll have to pick it up – though it sounds like it might be one of his more difficult reads. Is it? You got me, I am an American after all :).

      • I certainly agree that Lewis took people to task for ignorance. I think most good teachers do that. I also agree that he was not without his failings. I’m sure that he would have been the first to admit it.

        As for the difficulty of the book, it isn’t like his books that are most commonly read (Surprised by Joy, Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, Screwtape letters, etc.) because it has a very different audience in mind. Lewis’ Studies in Words is based on a series of lectures he would give to his undergraduates at Cambridge and so it deals with philology rather than Christianity. He is principally concerned to show the way in which several important words have been used throughout history from Greek and Latin roots (allowing for translational variation), through Anglo-Saxon into English. As boring as that may sound, let me reassure you that it is a scintillating read. He does use a number of quotations in other languages but for the most part translations are provided.

        To sum up: it is not the easiest read, but its difficulty is technical rather than theological.

        Thanks again for your comments, Philip.

      • Hey Ben,
        Thanks for getting back. In my master’s degree at regent I concentrated in Biblical languages, so some of the technical jargon may not trip me up too bad. Thanks for the recommendation, and I look forward to your posts.

        I am so happy to have found wonderingfair.com, I finally have free time to write – as I’m writing for the high school ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, and this is a very thoughtful and engaging blog site. I love it!

        I’m also looking for feedback on my blog, so check it out whenever you get the chance http://www.philip-bloggled.blogspot.com. My hope is to soon host a ministry blog that young people could relate to, but this is my personal blog and I’d appreciate writing tips, theological feedback, “Oh this is so freaking boring!” etc. I’m sort of new to the blogging world, though I’ve been working with youth for 6 yrs. now.

        Also, when did you graduate from Regent? I graduated in 05…


      • Well, Philip, we’re definitely glad to have your voice here at Wondering Fair (though I personally will be taking a break for a few months to ease up my schedule for the arrival of our son). Re: your question, I graduated from Regen in ’09 and have been studying here in the UK since then.

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