By Bruce Green
I have an article in front of me from Merriam-Webster.com on “How ‘Wonderful’ Lost Its Sense of Wonder.” It discusses semantic bleaching—the process by which a word’s meaning can fade over time so that what we end up with as its popular usage is a greatly reduced version of what it originally conveyed. Words like love, awesome, myriad, terrible, literally, genius and forever are all examples of this. Georg con der Gabelentz, the German linguist often credited for this concept, likened bleaching to a thriving, productive worker who first has his hours reduced and then is forced into retirement so that he no longer makes the contribution he once did to the workforce. In the same way, these words that have been bleached no longer make the same contribution to language that they once did.
All of this is true because language is never a stagnant thing (unless it’s a “dead” like Latin or Sanskrit). It’s continually evolving. In the case of bleaching, big, huge words like “miraculous” that applied to Jesus stilling a storm (and a sea) are now applied to the great play your son made at his baseball game. A fine play no doubt, but he defied no laws of nature in making it. Nonetheless, we’re lazy, we employ big words to increase the stature of small things, and before you know it—the big words have lost their big meaning.
That’s where we are with wonder as well as a host of other words that at one time said something significant about God. Now they are also used to describe someone’s new shoes, a current movie or a teenager’s latest crush.
Once this happens (verbicide as C. S. Lewis called it), it’s difficult to use them effectively in reference to God. It would be like if we started using the word “ocean” for mud puddles or “hurricane” to refer to the weather every time it rained. There would be a definite disconnect when we tried to go back and use them to speak of the Atlantic, the Pacific or the season’s latest hurricane.
All of this is worth bringing up because if God has been diminished in our language, it’s likely because He has been diminished in our lives. There is a reason the Israelites were commanded to be careful about how they referred to the Almighty One. Our words reflect our thoughts. If our hearts are right, we will want to think and speak about God in ways that accurately reflect His glory, majesty and uniqueness. There’s a high possibility that will be challenging and a certainty it will be renewing.
As we approach the glorious truths of the Nativity, I challenge all of us to see it anew—to move out of the shallows and into the deeper water. Our bleached-out spirits will be revived as we come strive to grips with His grandeur. As He gets bigger, we’ll get better. It always works that way.
You can find more of Bruce’s writings at his website: atasteofgracewithbrucegreen.com.