When All Times Become One Time
Swimming in the Greatness of the Ordinary: A Review of Michael O'Briens's "Island of the World"

Why Old Words Matter

One of the values of old, even archaic words is that their very strangeness helps us hear them.  If, as Pablo Picasso said, "art is the lie that tells the truth," then the indirection of those strange old words has a way of telling the truth even more fully than the ones with which we are so familiar.  In fact, the very familiarity of so-called modern words can render them cliche and render us numb to their meaning.

I noticed this recently when I had opportunity to compare both the updated modern and classic language editions of Oswald Chambers' classic devotional, My Utmost for His Highest.  In the selection for August 20th in the classic edition, for example, Chambers contrasts the self-conscious life with the Christ-conscious life, noting that "Jesus says 'Come unto Me. . . and I will give you rest,' that is, Christ-consciousness will take the place of self-consciousness."  In the hands of the updater, self-consciousness  turns into "self-awareness," a word that may have a similar denotation but has an unfortunate (and distracting) pop psychology connotation.  For me, to say "Christ-awareness will take the place of self-awareness" doesn't quite carry the full meaning.

Or take the entry from June 2nd.  Chambers repeatedly uses the word "haunted" to refer to a life completely taken up in God, and yet, as the updater renders it, we are merely "obsessed" with God.  First of all, to say we are obsessed with God gets it backwards: What Chambers is saying is that it is God who is obsessed with us.  And to say He haunts us is thrilling, really, as it makes me think of the mystery of His continual presence and the relentless way in which He pursues us, that "hound of Heaven."  Spooky, and good, isn't it?  It's not that old is always better.  But the burden should be on the updater to justify a change.

Older words require more of us.  And yet these elder words are ripe for reflection.  Winston Churchill said that "short words are best and the old words when short are best of all."  He may have been focusing on the simplicity and not the fullsomeness of old words, but I imagine he would agree that an older word is often better than a newer one.

So forget the updated editions.  Stick to classics. Wade in and stop on an old word.  Ponder it until it gives up its full meaning.  Let it speak across time to you.