The sad, unnecessary death of a word

I am going to share a pet peeve of mine that, I believe, is reasonable. Most pet peeves are nothing more than petty annoyances, but this peeve ranks beyond a mere annoyance and is heading in the direction of problem. I might even say, “serious” problem. My pet peeve is this: the misuse of the word epic.

Epic used to mean something. It had a great, objective meaning that it carried with it. When used rightly, it came with sweeping power, capturing the idea of a story far bigger than ourselves. It was a great word– a word that was once rarely used, and rightly so, because not very many things in life are truly epic.

Milton’s Paradise Lost, which poetically recounts the devastating fall of man and the subsequent removal from Eden is epic. Lord of the Rings might be considered an epic. God’s plan of redemption through Jesus Christ is the most epic story of all. The word described a vast and glorious concept of an all-encompassing story. It was a transcendent word. It was bigger than us.

But in the last three years the word has been destroyed. Epic has fallen from its heights and has been dragged through the mud. The word has lost all dignity, and recently, all meaning. The death of a word is a sad thing, and, as I mentioned earlier, a serious thing.

Words are the powerful vessels of truth. Truth is given and received in words– written or spoken. Ideas, concepts, principles– these are all communicated in words. God’s first relation to humanity was in the spoken word; and he continues to speak today by his written word. God intended the words he spoke to have clear and objective meaning; they were the means of communicating ideas and concepts. Man was created to receive and interpret the words of God. From the beginning of Scripture God has woven words into the fabric of human existence. We need words to survive, relate, and develop. God himself even said “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). These truth-vessels must be protected and maintained. When a word dies, in essence, some truth dies with it.

Let’s take the word epic, for instance. The objective meaning it once held is gone. These days, the word is used to describe anything one subjectively enjoys. A nice song is epic. Your car is epic. Queen Latifah is epic. Now, a perfectly useful word that could have been used to describe things that were truly epic is unusable. The word is dead. It cannot be used with precision anymore– it doesn’t mean anything. When I call something epic, instead of describing something of its characteristics, I am describing how I feel about it.

Language is as useful as it is precise. As words lose precision, language loses power. If no one can agree on the definition of a word, no one can say anything. The less potent our language is, the more impotent our culture will be. Satan wins a battle every time a word dies. By chipping away at our language, he cripples our ability to communicate truth, for truth must, by necessity, be communicated in words.

4 Replies to “The sad, unnecessary death of a word”

  1. Hello brother. I’m going to see you in about 2 hours, but I thought I’d take the time to comment on this here anyway.
    As you might have guessed, while I agree that the loss of the former meaning of the word ‘epic’ is unfortunate, I disagree on some other points:
    First, the word ‘epic’ has not died, which is clear because it is still in use. It’s usage is changing, leaving a void of expression of its former meaning, and that is a little sad. But it has also filled a gap with its new use – think of putting “great” “grandiose” “super” or other similar words in the picture you posted. They do not convey the same thing.
    And that is part of the liquidity of language in general. Words morph meaning all the time. That is why we speak modern English and not Old English – or Latin or German or French, for that matter. I realize that, even though in this case the word ‘epic’ did not actually die, words do die. But new words emerge. Expressive verb tenses die, and new ones emerge. Whole languages die, and new ones emerge. This has been happening for millennia. To water down the meaning of one word would not be a very epic win for Satan, or even be related to the battle.
    But all of this is actually beside the point, and I think that my most serious disagreement is the seriousness with which you take words. We use words to convey concepts and meaning because they are often the best option, but they are far from perfect. I think that “vessels of truth” is mistaken. They are vessels of meaning – but the meaning varies over time and from person to person, and is necessarily incomplete. To illustrate:
    One monk held out a fan and asked his three pupils “What is this?” The first said “a fan.” The second took the fan from the teacher and moved it back and forth, fanning himself. The third took the fan, scratched his back with it, then opened it up and served his master a piece of cake on it.
    The point is that a verbal description is necessarily incomplete – “a fan” does not fully describe what the master was holding; furthermore, there is no word, nor any combination of words, that could fully capture the complete nature of the fan. Even when words convey truth, they are necessarily incomplete. (Actually, the actions of the second two students are incomplete as well, but they get closer, and that’s a whole other topic.)
    This point may seem trivial, but it is not. Words are obviously very useful – in fact, I have used them throughout this very comment – but I believe it is extremely important that we recognize them for what they are: unreliable and incomplete vehicles for descriptions of reality. Not to do so would be to mistake the map for the terrain. Jesus did not say “I have described to you the way, the truth and the light.” He said “I AM the way, the truth, and the light.” Satan does not win or lose based on words we have available to us. He wins or loses based on us living the truth.
    Or, at least he would if he existed.

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