How Modernity Influenced the Evolution of English Words

I have been reading Owen Barfield’s History in English Words, and it has some amazing insights into how language changes.

By way of introduction, consider the cartoon above, about “thinking outside of the box.” Today, “thinking outside of the box” is thought of as a virtue. It suggests getting outside of one’s traditional, conceptual world, and considering a larger context for thought. The adage is promoted all over the English-speaking world, ranging from staff development training sessions in corporations, to our political discussions, and in how we think about our view of the world more broadly.

But is it really possible to completely “think outside of the box?” Or is it more accurate to say that humans who uphold such a virtue are really just jumping from one box into another box, merely fooling themselves that they are somehow above the “boxes” that others impose on them? What about the boxes we all impose on ourselves, without realizing it? What happens when you think you are “thinking outside of the box,” only to eventually discover yourself living inside some other box?

The age of the “Enlightenment,” or what some call “modernity,” represents that period in Western history when science developed in ways unimagined heretofore. Now, there have always been Christians, like myself, who believe that science and faith go hand-in-hand with one another, or at the very least, say that science and faith are not at war with one another. But the rise of science, and along with it, the more metaphysically-minded belief of scientism, has had a massive influence on how the English language has changed over just the past few centuries, as scientism leans towards having a more ideological focus, intent on supplanting Christianity…. as though scientism seeks to “think outside of the box” of Christianity.

For example, Barfield in his chapter on Mechanism (p.183-200) notes that the practice of adding the tag of “-ism” to an end of the word, as in scientism, is a modern development, indicating a change in how modern people have a more “contemplative attitude towards all we ourselves do and feel and think,” as Barfield framed it. Perhaps this is because we live in a world that is so captivated by science, along with the accoutrements of technology, with our washing machines, and other labor-saving devices, with our cell phones and Google, all affording us the time and energy to be more contemplative, at least for some. We then take something like science, and give it a more ideological component, by adding the “-ism” tag to the ending of the word. Also, there is the word feminine, which gives us now the related feminism, as well as the word human, and its modern related humanism. The list can go on.

Then there is the whole trend towards the secular, in an attempt to marginalize the spiritual. The growth of scientism has enabled the popularity of words like determinism, as a secular alternative to the word predestination, allowing one to speak of such things without the theological assumptions of the latter.

The practice of prepending “self-” to a whole variety of words, is in particular a product of the Enlightenment, as with words like self-acceptanceself-respect and self-help. You never had self-help books written prior to 19th century, but we are completely overwhelmed with the self-help genre in books today.

The word pious once meant describing someone as devout and spiritually faithful. Now it has the connotation of feeble-mindedness. Even the word religion, which once meant something to describe the whole of human life, with respect to one’s relationship with God, has now been placed in a special category. To be religious is be someone who believes in God, as though religion is a type of add-on to human existence, and not something essential to human existence. In other words, everyone is a human being, but only some are religious, a way of thinking that would have been unthinkable a few hundred years ago.

All of these changes are new, as the modern world has sought to divide the natural and supernatural realms, which were formerly united.

Methinks that the advocates of scientism today have simply jumped out of one box, into another box, without knowing it.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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