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Reflections: The Wonder of Words

By The Rev’d Phil Wales, Cathedral Deacon

Advent signals the start of a new year in the Church. It is a time of expectant waiting for Jesus’ birth. Mark’s Gospel, the account of Jesus’ life which we follow more closely week by week this year, is entitled: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Writing in Greek, the word St Mark used for ‘good news’ was euangelion (from which we get the English ‘evangelism’). Mark was an innovator. He had deliberately taken the word euangelion from one particular context, that of announcing a military victory, and put it to use in a wholly novel way.

I delight in words, unpacking them, trying to make sense of them and trying to make sense through them. Our creativity with words is something which fascinates me even if some of the words themselves aren’t to my particular taste. The compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary recently awarded the accolade ‘word of the year’ to ‘rizz’. In case this tidbit of news passed you by, ‘rizz’ is a newly minted word meaning ‘having style or attractiveness’. Knowing this gives a clue to its origin. Rizz has been fashioned out of the Greek charisma which means favour or gift. And this in turn hints at how that word came to be incorporated into English centuries ago. Charisma became adopted by Christians to refer to a gift (charism) given to someone through the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

Whether or not rizz will endure is open to question. Perhaps next year it may find itself featuring in the annual league table of words people find irksome. According to one polling company this year’s list of words which may rub people up the wrong way include: holibobs, awesomeness, totes, lolz, and bantz.

Whatever you think about these new additions to our vocabulary, our response reveals something of our deep and unbreakable emotional bond with language and the world of ideas in which we live. For example, when telling stories words convey both the emotions of the speaker as well as evoke emotions in the listener. And the beauty of poetry can be found in the way in which just a handful of seemingly disconnected words, carefully arranged, are able to intensify feelings.

Yet because of our shadow side we need to be vigilant about using words for ugly purposes. And we also need to guard against an impulse to control language and banish words into the outer darkness. The fictional world George Orwell wrote about in his novel 1984, exposes the dangers of trying to do so in an attempt to break the human spirit.

You will remember how, in that God forsaken world, the anti-hero, Winston Smith had a job rewriting history. He was employed to alter the official government record to make it fit with whatever happened to be the dictatorship’s party line. And, rather than allowing new words to be born, Big Brother’s goal was the opposite. In Orwell’s world language was systematically depleted by banning ‘unnecessary’ words and manufacturing ‘newspeak’.

Thank God such a world does not exist and that words will never become the exclusive property of any one person or group however much some may try to make that so. Rather, in a complex and mysterious way language is something entrusted to us. And, by God’s grace, we are given the freedom to use it for good.