The War of the Words

War of the Words


He Who Defines the Terms Wins the Debate

By Michael J. McKenna

“It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other words? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good,’ for instance. If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well--better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still.... In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words--in reality, only one word. Don't you see the beauty of that, Winston?” (from 1984, by George Orwell)

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”

And with that, Winston’s friend Symes, a philologist in the research department at the Ministry of Truth, explained how the destruction of words ultimately leads to the destruction of thought.

Or, stated another way, if you control the words people use and don’t use, you ultimately control how they think, since humans think in terms of words.

Was this just a farfetched notion, the irrational fear of a mid-20th century socialist writing in 1949?

Well, how about this “Guidance Reminder: On Abortion Procedures, Terminology & Rights,” recently from NPR? In the “Guidance Reminder,” NPR journalists are told to avoid “the modifiers anti-abortion or abortion-rights; don’t use pro-life, pro-choice or pro-abortion unless they are in quotes or proper names. Avoid abortionist, which connotes a person who performs clandestine abortions.”

“A classical and Christian education has a bias toward words, and the truth, beauty, and goodness inherent in those words.”

Likewise, in light of the recent Georgia “heartbeat” law, restricting access to abortion after a heartbeat can be detected, journalists began referring to the baby’s heartbeat as “fetal cardiac activity.” The New York Times refers to the baby’s heartbeat as “embryonic pulsing.”

Does the normal reader respond differently to the “baby’s heartbeat” than we do to “embryonic pulsing”? Of course we do! The former carries emotional weight (which is harder to ignore), while the latter does not due to its technical, clinical, and emotionally antiseptic nature.

An NPR spokeswoman said, “We acknowledge that discussing divisive topics with both sensitivity and accuracy can be challenging. We’re constantly evaluating best practices and the language may evolve.” (Emphasis added.)

So what does classical and Christian education have to do with all of this? 

Well, God could have made knowledge of Him communicable through interactive DVDs, YouTube videos, and entertaining educational PBS television programs. But He didn’t. He chose to do it through words.

We need to understand how the degeneration of language ultimately indicates the degeneration of culture. The teaching of rap instead of Standard Written English in inner-city schools, and the publication of an Emoji Bible are indications of the decline of culture, not simply a new cultural direction. As Confucius said, “When you want to change a culture, first, change the names.”

A classical and Christian education has a bias toward words, and the truth, beauty, and goodness inherent in those words.

For this reason, our students must learn not only to love words, but also to be lovers of words, and to be masters of them. As Dorothy Sayers said in her seminal essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, students “are prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.” 

How does Paratus Classical Academy work to prevent your children and our students from falling prey to the emotional impact of words and those who would use them deceitfully? 

“If classical education is about anything, it’s about the mastery of Language.”

We teach students to read using phonics, rather than the so-called “look-say” approach. After all, English is a phonetic language, not a “pictographic language,” such as Chinese. We fill their years with timeless literature so that their imaginations might be captured by good, “nutritious” things to read. We have them give oral presentations beginning in the earliest years, proceeding through to graduation, so that public speaking is nothing to be feared. We teach them formal rhetoric, so they know the difference between different kinds of speeches and different kinds of audiences. We teach them formal logic, so they know that how words fit together determines what the words ultimately mean. 

In short, we place the love and mastery of words—and the Word—at the center of all that we teach. If classical education is about anything, it’s about the mastery of Language.

And in this way, our students won’t find themselves at the mercy of Symes, Confucius, or NPR.

How can you as our “co-teachers” help? Glad you asked!

Talk to your children. Often. And when you talk to them require that they speak to you in full sentences, with no verbal detritus such as “like,” “um,” y’know,” etc. Ask them to look at you when you speak to them, and they to you. Mealtimes are a great time to talk to your kids at length. When my five children were growing up, we ate dinner together at the dinner table virtually every night, and we had an inviolable rule: No devices at the table. By refusing to allow our children (and ourselves) to be physically proximate but relationally distant, by texting, IM-ing, etc., we were teaching them to value those in their presence, over those far away. And the words we shared with each other was one way to do that.

A friend of mine used to have each of his children read a newspaper article of their own choosing before dinner, and then discuss it with the rest of the family during dinner. (Does anyone read newspapers anymore?) This way, they were never at a loss for interesting dinner conversation which everyone could participate in.

Have them read, a lot! And read to them, particularly when they’re young.

In Deuteronomy 6:4-6, we read, “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.”

Did you see the bias toward “words”? God gave us His word, and then commanded us to teach those words to our children “diligently.” 

I know no other way of obeying God at this point without making words a centerpiece of our homes and classrooms.


See the book “Honey for a Child’s Heart,” by Gladys Hunt for suggestions of good children’s literature.