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Beyond Semantics

October 26th, 2012 by Fr. Vasile

One of the interesting linguistic phenomena is semantic change, or in layman terms, the change in one of the historical meanings of a word. Archbishop Dmitri of blessed memory, for example, was always making waves during pan Orthodox Lenten Vespers when he was blessing the fasting meal using the prayer “Our Lord Jesus Christ bless Thee the meat of Thy servants”. He always enjoyed clarifying that the original meaning of the word meat in Middle English was actually food, of all varieties, not just of animal origin. It made for sure an interesting conversation over baked potatoes.

There are other changes, however, that occasionally can draw attention to cultural shifts in the society. Take for instance the word holiday. In the Christ centered society of Old England, the original word, haligdæg, referred to actual Holy Days, as in religious feasts. In the tradition of the Church, kept in Orthodoxy until nowadays, it was customary for people not to work, but to live aside their usual occupations and spend these days attending services and rejoicing in the festivities that always accompanied these days. As we moved into more recent and secular times however, the Christian meaning was lost, and all that is left today from the original significance is that in these days people don’t work and can pretty much do whatever they want.

The “holy” part from holiday is so ignored currently, that even a confused day like Halloween, when vampires go out to meet witches and party in Frankenstein’s house with the seven dwarves, can be called a holiday. Maybe a more accurate label for it would be an “un-holy-day”, but maybe is just me. Sure one can argue that the initial meaning of Halloween was the All Hallow Eve, the formal celebration of All the Saints of Western Christianity, but this only goes to prove my point.

Another famous example is the word “gay” that used to mean someone jolly, happy, enjoying life, a very benign and frequent word in common English. But starting in the 1950s the meaning was hijacked into an umbrella term for people that practice homosexuality and the original meaning was totally lost. It is not the place nor the time here to discuss the morality of same sex attraction, suffices to say that, to me at least, this is signifies a swing in the society that has become more permissible to such practices and chooses to express this tolerance by attributing them words of wide acceptance.

Christianity is not immune to semantic change either. Take the verb “to sin” for example. The original Greek word is hamartano, which actually means to miss the target. But that’s not what Western Christians mean by it today: for them “to sin” is to break the law of God, is trespassing. The original meaning defines sin as an existential failure, as missing the target of your life by walking away from God, while the other one is clear-cut offense that needs to be disciplined. The first one moves you to strive to perfect yourself as Christian in God’s Grace to get closer to the target, while the other one render’s you in a powerless penitent awaiting God’s verdict.

“Repentance” in today’s Christian circles means to feel sorry about something you did, to have remorse. The original patristic term was actually metanoia, from the words nous-mind-heart and meta-after. The current meaning refers to a simple feeling, emotion, that doesn’t necessarily drives to action, while the original refers to a fundamental change of mind and heart that happens after one understand the consequences of their actions. This understanding of repentance is kept as such in Eastern Christian Orthodoxy.

Even the word Orthodox itself, that originally meant the right worship or glory, is nowadays almost an insult as it refers almost condescending to someone that is too stubborn to change.

So words matter, words change and with them our understanding of the world. Sometimes it is worthwhile to dig into a word to understand more than just semantics but to recognize the direction in which the society is shifting,

The reason why Orthodoxy is so stubborn in preserving the original meaning of its words and its teachings is that they are based on the revelation of the only original Word, the Word of God that chose to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary and become Man so we can understand Him. He translated Himself into humanity so we can grasp even a small portion of His Divine Wisdom and using this little knowledge to draw closer to Him and fulfill our lives’ potential. The world may swirl around and move and shake, but the Word of God remains forever unchanged, giving our lives direction and salvation.

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