Words do not hold still. They wiggle.
Words writhe and squirm, sometimes gush down the trough of history and splash over the contemporary moment. For example, in Roman times an “addict” was a debtor given to someone as a slave. Then, a mere 400 years ago, the same word referred to a disciplined practice or passionate devotion to something. Alcohol, cocaine, and oxycodone have changed how we use that word.
Or take another word — “awful.” Seven hundred years ago the same word that means something ghastly to us meant what it sounds like: something inspiring awe.
Those who learn a second or third language know the difficulty of translating words. Meaning changes when words transition from one language and culture to another. Think of that reality in regard to the Bible, Declaration of Independence, or Constitution.
There is no single original text from which each book of the Bible was translated; rather, it is garnered from hundreds or even thousands of partial manuscripts in multiple languages. The oldest versions used for translation are from Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew, but there are literally thousands of scraps of papyrus offering snippets of text, in dozens of ancient languages, all competing for “oldest known copy.” The Bible is strained through the sieve of history, and then translated into more than 1,300 modern languages. Every translation, and every generation, changes the meaning of biblical chapter and verse.
Closer to home, take the word “happiness,” as in “pursuit of happiness,” from the Declaration of Independence. Our contemporary notion of happiness has to do with feelings related to personal gratification, or what makes me happy. But happiness to the founding generation of American revolutionaries meant, “ ... that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.” (Justice Anthony Kennedy, 2005). Oops, big difference.
When we consider that the meaning of words does not hold still over time or across languages, then we realize that no document from the past stands still, and there is no possibility of determining original meanings when it comes to an ancient document like the Bible, and no possibility of strict literal interpretation when it comes to the Constitution. Each word and each sentence of heirloom documents is a judgment call — a translation even within the same language.
Meanings wiggle as words age, but they thrash and splash as we translate their meaning from language to language, culture to culture, and generation to generation. Socrates was right when he complained that the written word cannot defend itself against misinterpretation or abuse, which led the most famous sage of them all to shun writing altogether.
I say that, and acknowledge the ghost of truth within it, even though I am a writer and preacher — a professional word weasel. What blows my mind is how carelessly words are spewed these days in twitter posts, emails, and television diatribes. Not only are those words defenseless from being corrupted, misused, abused, and contorted, they will be there for as long as each respective medium survives — in some cases, cast beyond our planet and doomed to travel as endless sound bites in space.
While I clearly do not follow Socrates’ sage advice to shun writing, I am awe-filled by the power and vulnerability of words. So much so, I dither about mine like a hen with her chicks. I wish everyone did.