What’s In A Word?

By NANCY PATRICK

The older I get, the more often I hear words that I thought I understood but have somehow taken on new meanings while something else occupied my mind. I know every generation has its identifying lingo that connects the people of similar ages. My adolescence occurred in the ’60s in the midst of the hippie movement. My peers used phrases like free love, joint, groovy, and cool. 

My parents couldn’t have grasped the concept of free love. For them, love cost commitment and self-sacrifice. Joints were hangouts where people drank and danced. Groovy referred to a rough surface, and cool referred to weather.

Fortunately, my teaching career enabled me to remain literate with teenagers until my retirement from education in 2015. I heard words and phrases frequently that I had not heard before, but I often inferred meaning from context or personal reactions to what students said. 

On more than one occasion, I actually asked a student, “What does —— mean?” The reply, “Oh, you really don’t want to know, Mrs. Patrick,” always warmed my heart with maternal feelings because my students wanted to protect me from the vulgarity of the new language.

All fields of interest have jargon that fits their specific areas: religion, law, education, medicine, science, engineering, and so on. Those professional terms generally remain constant in meaning. However, the social vocabulary in our society changes at a relatively fast pace as technology develops.

Some of the current political and social vocabulary piques my interest. For example, about four years ago I began hearing the term “alternate fact.” I had taught critical thinking skills to young people for years and emphasized the provability and concreteness of facts while defining opinions as ideas relative to situations.

The premise that facts lack absolute information worries me. If we cannot trust facts, we will live our lives as leaves tossed around by whimsical winds. Many of those who chose to believe “alternate facts” suffered grave consequences when they or their family members contracted the Covid-19 virus. Sadly, many learned through tragedy that “alternate facts” are really opinions or theories.

Another term I recently became acquainted with is “woke.” Of course, I know the difference between awake and asleep, but this new version puzzled me. I did a little Googling (there’s a new word for you!) and discovered the current usage of “woke” refers to an awakening to perceived social injustices whether they involve race, gender, or sexual identity. This sensitivity to others’ situations may indeed make life more meaningful.

The term “cancel culture” recently caught my attention. I discovered that the term refers to the popular practice of boycotting businesses or shaming individuals who have said or done something deemed objectionable or offensive by certain people.

The recent decision of the American Baseball Commission to move the World Series from Atlanta, Georgia, to another locale illustrates cancel culture. Georgia had passed what many considered restrictive voting laws. The Commission wielded its power by canceling Georgia’s financial windfall as punishment for the state’s perceived attempt to make voting harder for some people. 

One other word that has expanded its meaning in my lifetime is the word “family.” During my youth, family meant a biological unit of people that included parents, children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, and cousins. 

After WW II, society began redefining the term family as divorce became prevalent. That then entailed remarriage which led to blended families. As many families experienced chasms of differences that permanently separated them, many people began creating “families” made up of like-minded people rather than blood relatives. 

Realizing that both culture and language exist as living organisms, I accept that vocabulary and usage will shift in meanings and applications as society changes. However, I sincerely hope some of my favorite words will not change—words that have sustained me throughout my spiritual and physical lives.  

One such word is love—the kind that unites people with an unbreakable bond. I have witnessed this kind of love many times in my life. My parents’ love for each other lasted through sixty-five years of marriage. They connected so strongly that my dad went to live in a nursing home with mom when her health necessitated that she live there.

I watched their difficult last years together as their health declined and mom’s dementia progressed. As dad lay dying, mom stood beside his bed and petted him. Although greatly impaired mentally, her instinct to take care of her husband was ingrained into her being.

Although closely related to love, commitment has the added quality of unquestioning loyalty. Love, especially romantic love, sometimes wavers, but those with committed love forge ahead whatever life throws at them. 

My husband’s sister and her husband married when they were both eighteen years old. She developed multiple sclerosis in her late twenties. I watched in awe as my brother-in-law remained committed to her for more than thirty years. I have never seen the level of commitment my brother-in-law demonstrated as he daily gave up his life to care for his soulmate.

Integrity has always been one of my favorite words. Such a rare quality today, integrity defies a simple definition. The qualities of honesty and reliability do not adequately define it. To me, a person of integrity maintains his or her righteousness despite any circumstance. He or she will not bend to public opinion or even persecution. The person who most represents integrity to me appears as the character Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Society produces a few rare souls of integrity. The test for integrity involves a person’s behavior in the face of conflict, moral ambiguity, temptation, or abandonment. People of integrity will behave honorably whether anyone else will ever know about the behavior or not. Integrity represents a rare and precious quality that I hope will never change in meaning.

Proverbs 11:3—The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity. (NIV)

 Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing

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