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Ponderings. . . on Verbicide

Joy and Matthew Steem

shadow-art-silhouette-art-kumi-yamashita-4 Can you do me this favor right now and imagine in your mind’s eye an altar. OK. Now put the following title “Progress” on that handsome altar. (No doubt you are chuckling right now, but work with me.) OK, we probably would agree that such a thing is not just connected with a strict religious connotation, right? Altars are used for sacrifice, and that is not always bad. Parents sacrifice time for their children. Couple’s sacrifice their earlier freedoms for—hopefully—the bliss of togetherness. Respectable citizens sacrifice their money for good charity. Forward thinking students sacrifice some frivolities for future degrees, etc., etc. We generally sacrifice something for a reason, and that's good.

Of course, while some sacrifice can also be offered out of good intentions, it can also have lamentable consequences. We make a sacrifice for a perceived good and then it turns out later to make things worse. We have sacrificed our environment for the sake of convenience, our health for the sake of a quick meal, and our leisure for the sake of cheap utilitarianism.

What about words though? And what of that altar of sacrifice? Let’s take another thought test: think of the following words “pure,” “chaste,” “modest,” and “virginal,” (I cringe whilst typing!) and then imagine employing them in an everyday conversation. Better yet, try to remember any modern day movie or play or novel you have heard them in.

Maybe it’s just me—though I don't think so!—but doesn't “purity” have a rather flaccid, weak and wimpish connotation to it? And a “chaste” individual in our time and age is a what? A nun? Probably a modest nun. As far as “virginal”? ... no one even wants to go there. Yet despite the fanciful claim that our age is still sexually repressed, why then have we sacrificed the non-sexual meanings of these words in even our spiritual settings for the most part? Part of it is that we are paranoid of gendering words, I think. (I can't help myself, but when was the last time you heard the word “maiden” used? It’s sexist right? I mean a maidenly CEO is literally an anathema. And understandably so: maidenly is not productive or efficient.) Even words like “innocent” or “wholesome” are little used. What would “innocent” look like? A reaction I have gotten when asking is “oh, probably someone really naive, or young or frigid.” When I asked if “wholesome” could be included with vibrant sexuality, I got a truly odd look; sure, organic food is wholesome, Jersey cow cream is wholesome, but, like, an actual person who partakes in “wholesome” sexuality ... and isn't Amish (AKA boring)? I can't ever see Victoria Secret coming out with a “wholesome” line of undies. I rest my case.

We all know that chaste doesn't just mean abstaining from you-know-what. It also means to be circumspect, restrained from excess, and to be free from indecency or offensiveness. As consumers, that sounds like something we need more of! (Even if nothing else than to rid ourselves of kitsch.) How about being chaste of desire? And not sexual desire either. Yet, since that word has lately been castigated to only its sexual connotation, what has modern culture lost? In his Studies in Words, C.S. Lewis talked of verbicide. He mentioned that morality and immorality have been linked nearly exclusively to chastity and lechery. Yet morality includes more than just the sexual. So do words like “modest” or “chaste” or “pure.” They do, in fact, include large tracts of our life, and we will be better off if we don't sacrifice their use in our diction simply because current culture isn't comfortable with words that carry the whiff of—heavens!—temperance. And there is yet another word we could study!