So what do you do with a word when it’s meaning has so dramatically changed in the ears of it’s hearers that using it is almost certain to miscommunicate dreadfully?
At that point, the speaker must stop and chose whether to
A) adjust and use a different word or phrase instead that hopefully means the same thing, or
B) talk longer and provide additional clarifying background information such that the word can then be successfully used just-in-time on the lately educated listener, or
C) abandon the idea altogether as there is no feasible substitute and the risk of miscommunication is too great.
Example 1: The speaker wishes to say that Scrooge from Dicken’s A Christmas Carol behaved “niggardly”, but as this word will almost certainly be heard in listeners ears as having something to do with the the taboo word “nigger”, he opts to use the word “stingy” instead. (Option A)
Example 2: The writer is telling a story about how a grandfather let slip what all the children were going to receive for Christmas gifts that year. She loves the metaphorical phrase “he let the cat out of the bag” but realizes that many of her readers will be from South Asia and English will be their second language. She is concerned they might not be familiar with the idiom and so she adds a parenthetical explanation for possibly confused readers. (Option B)
Example 3: The academic theologian is talking about how the temple cult of ancient Israel included ceremonial animal sacrifice. However, he realizes that to his audience, the word “cult” has only ever been used to describe dangerous religious sects like the Church of Scientology, or worse, groups of Satanists in fiction and horror movies. The idea that their own faith could be legitimately described in a sentence that contains the word “cult” would be distasteful to them in a way that no short explanation can fix (Option B). He could reword everything to talk about “ceremonies” or “acts of devotion” (Option A), but feels what he’s trying to say would sound clunky. He decides to just axe that part of his presentation completely as it’s not really essential to his main thesis and more likely to add noise. (Option C)
Example 4: An financial analyst being interviewed on TV attempts to explain the latest accounting scandal with an insurance firm on Wall Street. He tosses around the words “revenue”, “profit”, “income”, “earnings”, “dividends”, and “credits” without realizing that much of the audience doesn’t understand the subtle differences between all these things, given the context. (Isn’t profit and revenue the same thing? Wait, what?) Nearly all the listeners, including the interviewer are left confused. He should have used a generous mix of options A, B, and C articulated above.
So far, so good. These are basic communication principals really. This has endless application in the realms of gospel preaching and bible translation. It also helps explain why an old translation may become deficient overtime. If numerous bible scholars thought the word “propitiation” was accurate and useful in years past, but you are worried that using it will miscommunicate, you can use a word like “appease” instead, and risk introducing baggage associated with that word. You can stop and give everyone a mini-lesson on what “propitiation” means and why it’s in the bible. Or you can choose to not use the word and all and describe the passage some other way.
Here is 1 John 2:2 in several versions:
New King James Version
And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.
Reformation Study Bible
And He Himself is the propitiation* for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.
* A propitiation is a sacrifice to God meant to take away the enmity brought by sin between God and the worshiper. Only Christ can be an effective propitiation.
New International Version
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
When he served as a sacrifice for our sins, he solved the sin problem for good—not only ours, but the whole world’s.
The King James, even in it’s modernized form contains the original word. An example study bible includes an explanatory footnote (Option B). The more contemporary NIV decides to replace it with “atoning sacrifice” (Option A). Peterson in The Message decides to rewrite the sentence too. (Option A)
Of course in this context, translating scripture entirely, Option C (throwing it out) is not an option.
What do you do if you are translating scripture into another language – one where no equivalent word exists? Do you actually INVENT a new word? Maybe! You might have to. That’s the nuclear bomb version of Option B though and will need to be done carefully as zero of your readers will initially know what it means and it could take several generations for that to be sufficiently patched up.
I think a bigger problem arises when the word in question has had it’s meaning mangled beyond recognition, BUT no worthy alternative exists. The word I have in mind is “love”. Incidentally, we go back to 1 John:
1 John 4:7-8
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
I just overheard a guy in the coffee shop today trying to explain how “God is love” to another dude. Much confusion ensued.
The word “love” is a complete train wreck today. As far as I can tell, it’s been a problem for centuries, so I’m not quite sure how much worse it is today, but nevertheless things aren’t good.
“I love coffee.”
“Love is the answer.”
(Answer to what? How’s that supposed to work?)
“Love is blind”
(Sure doesn’t seem like it, are you sure?)
(What lost exactly? How was it fighting? What did that/will that look like?)
“Marriage is about love, not gender. – On an LGBTQ poster I saw yesterday.
(OK, so does that mean it IS about sex, or it isn’t?)
Love Actually – Movie title.
(Sheds zero light on the subject.)
Pop radio always provides endless great examples:
“Love me harder!” – Ariana Grande song
(The music video confirms this is pretty much exclusively about sex, not devotion. Also, why is The Weeknd on this track?)
“I hate u, I love u.” – Gnash, another band currently on the radio at the time of writing this.
(Can you have both at the same time? Yes.)
“Love is evolution’s very best day” – Bono, U2
(What does that even mean?)
“I don’t wanna know know know, who’s takin’ you home home home, and lovin’ you so so so, the way I used to love you oh” – Maroon 5, currently on the radio about every 10 minutes
(So how exactly did you “used to lover her so”? By takin’ her home? Maybe she got tired of that and wanted someone who would be a good father and not go clubbing and drink too much booze every night (see the other verses). So maybe the new dude she’s with isn’t “loving” her anything like you were. Maybe it’s really different. Then again, maybe it’s more of the same.
“If you love your kids, you won’t spank them.”
(This is a steaming heap of nonsense.)
“Be careful to show love to these people by not triggering them.”
(That may be kindness, depending on the context, but I’m pretty sure love is something else.)
“I would love to get a new iPhone 7.”
(That’s nice, but that’s a pretty different use than the above.)
When people encounter the word “love” in scripture (and it’s there over 500 times in most translations), what are they going to think? Who knows. Just like people who had abusive fathers have difficulty imagining God the Father, our exposure to a myriad of meanings for “love” also causes God’s holy word to fall on confused ears.
I think there are something we can do to model love in such a way as to make it’s meaning more accurate. A strong community will have more of this. Certainly we can educate people on it’s true meaning, but this is difficult and it’s effectiveness is probably overrated.
I believe that at the end of the day, the Holy Spirit must give us all a deep (often unarticulatable) sense of what “love” is. Many of the Christian mystic writers speak often of a deeper sense of the meaning of God’s love that was given to them over the course of a life of meditation and prayer. It’s a common theme and they always struggle to describe it. Most of them end up falling back on that word, “love” again. I think we need someone perfect to show us what it means.