Meditation Monday – Searching for Lost Words

by Christine Sine
The Dictionary of Lost Words cover

by Christine Sine

Yesterday, my morning contemplation was derailed by a book… and a novel at that. It is called The Dictionary of Lost Wordsand tells the story of Esme whose father is one of a group of lexicographers who are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. One day, as Esme sits under the table where they work, a word flutters to the ground. She rescues it, discovering that the word means slave girl and so begins a delightful adventure in which the rescuing of words becomes the center of Esme’s life. She realizes that the words and meaning relating to the lives of women and ordinary peoples’ experiences were often deliberately ignored by this and subsequent groups of dictionary men who consciously or unconsciously worked to shape the dictionary based on their own view of the world.

So, Esme complies her own dictionary – The Dictionary of Lost Words, a title and a story that deeply impacted me. A couple of years ago, I read another fascinating book, Landmarks by Robert McFarlane. He, too, was a gatherer of lost words, mainly, words about nature. He, too, discovered that when the Junior Oxford Dictionary, was updated a few years ago, some words were deliberately removed and others added. All those removed had to do with nature, and those added were about technology. He talked about how our loss of descriptive words for nature meant that we are losing “a literacy of the land” and, as a result, see nature more as a thing that does something for us rather than something to us so it easily becomes “more vulnerable to unwise use and improper action.” Our selective use of language, he argues, has “stunned the world out of wonder”.

As I thought about this yesterday, I was reminded that throughout history we have deliberately “lost” words and languages as an intentional way to suppress cultures and races. Terrible, you might think, but we all consciously or unconsciously “lose” words so that the world around us reflects our own world view or so that we can fit into the worldview of those in power over us. We consciously or unconsciously judge people accordingly. We love that English has become a universal language, but rarely think about the impact on other languages and their cultures. Even the English that is acceptable is shaped by those in power, once by Britain and now by America, and by white America, at that. That is the English we view as superior, we teach it at school, and we expect people to speak it in order to get a high paying job.

I must confess that when I first travelled to non-English speaking countries, I was relieved that I did not need to learn another language. I could easily and lazily communicate, unconsciously communicating my superiority to those around me. Even the English I used, grounded in a university education, was more complex and difficult to understand than what some of my colleagues used. Changing my language so that others understood me was called “dumbing down” the language. I was definitely superior. My use of words said so.

Christian world views, too, are defined by language. In conservative circles, one only calls God, Father. In more progressive circles, one calls God everything but Father.  All of us, I feel, have lost the rich array of words we could embrace to describe the Creator of the universe.

Love Your Neighbour – Create A New Dictionary of Lost Words

Has it ever occurred to you that loving your neighbour could mean loving their language as you love your own? Could loving your neighbour mean helping them rediscover their own language with pride?

Imagine how fun it could be to create a new dictionary of lost words, one that helps all of us keep cultures and nature alive and vital. Maybe one of the spiritual practices we all need for the future is to rediscover a lost word each day and then use it at least 5 times each day for the next week. Or we could help someone else rediscover a word that our superior attitude towards them has forced them to discard from their language. The challenge would be learning how to adopt that word into our own vocabulary without making our friend feel put down or ridiculed. Wow this dictionary of lost words could be quite a challenge.

Here are a few prayerful exercises for you to consider over the next week:

  1. Make a list of 10 words you used as a child but have lost from your current vocabulary. Which ones would you like to transform into “found” words? What is one step you could take to make that happen?
  2. When I left Australia and settled in the U.S I had to lose some of my favourite words like “fair dinkum, G day and arvo.  Talk to a friend from another English speaking culture. What are words they have lost in order to fit into your culture? In what ways could you help them embrace these words again?
  3. If you are white, talk to a black friend. What are words they have had to lose from their vocabulary in order to feel accepted in white society and be able to get a job? How has this made them feel? How could you learn from them about how to reintegrate these words into not just their culture but into your’s as well? If you are black you might like to have this conversation with a white friend and help them to understand what you have had to give up in order to fit into white society.
  4. In your Christian worldview what are the acceptable words for God? Speak to a friend with another Christian perspective. Make a list of 10 words that are acceptable to them that have been “lost” from your Christian world view. What do you feel you have lost by not using these words? Choose 2 of these words. What are ways that you could comfortably reintroduce these words into your language?

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Donna Chacko April 26, 2021 - 7:41 am

Hi Christine, How original for you to write about words ini this context! So appropriate for a writer and word-lover. Thank you. Donna

Christine Sine April 26, 2021 - 8:37 am

Your welcome. This is a book that I think you would enjoy.

Debbie Weatherspoon April 26, 2021 - 7:57 am

Hi Christine, wow, I loved this devotional and was really doing well reading today’s reflection until number 3. It tells me that you assume your reader isn’t Black. I am also wondering if you assume your readers are EuroAmerican or White or some other word for dominant culture. Aha! words! What is the word. What are the words. Of course Logos – the Word made flesh came as a brown middle eastern man. Thank you for this reflection and for telling us about the books.

Christine Sine April 26, 2021 - 8:36 am

Debbie, you are right because I know that probably 90% of Godspace readers (much to my shame) are white. I am working to change that but it is slow. Also to be honest, as I talk to my black friends I find that this is a conversation that they don’t tend to have with each other either, just as white people don’t tend to. Most of them have given up lots of words that they don’t use even when they talk to each other, some of them because they have been so shamed that they always see these words as being inferior. However, as you suggested I have changed the wording of that step, and I appreciate your speaking out.

Herbert Orr April 26, 2021 - 11:42 am

Early I wrote about lost Words about Jesus the Word of God: On rocky soil when the plant cannot put roots deep enough into the soil are Christians who, when persecution comes, abandons and the Word is lost.
Next, plants with weeds that grow larger than the good seeds keep it from bearing fruit.
Spiritually, It is the Christian that lets cares of this world and deceitful riches prevents the Word from being fruitful.
Matthew 13 vs 3, 18-23.
The parable of the tares= weeds vs 24-30 36-43 These have good fruit along with the work of Satan, the tares.
So, I believe the people who have cares of the world can spend a few minutes each day to begin the thoughts about
the kingdom of God can still be fruitful to some extent.

revrodneymarsh April 26, 2021 - 6:58 pm

Great post Christine. Thanks. I would like to comment on the task you gave me….. “Make a list of 10 words you used as a child but have lost from your current vocabulary. Which ones would you like to transform into “found” words? What is one step you could take to make that happen?”

All of my childhood words, that I could recall, were, unbeknown to me as a child, were local indigenous word from the Noongar language. For example, our home made pole tipped with barbed fencing wire used to impale crabs, was a ‘gidgee’, (spear) in Noongar, a small rock was a ‘coondee’,a large rock a ‘boondee’. A local poisonous snake was a ‘dugite’. Many other local plants and trees retained a common name which was indigenous, but we didn’t know. I only first became aware that these words were local to me, when I went to theological college in Sydney. I used some words, which to me were ‘obviously’ known, but I discovered were definitely foreign in Sydney. I realised then, that these words were Noongar. Even words which are recognisably indigenous Australian words, are really ‘foreign’ to almost all indigenous Australians. For example, ‘kangaroo’ is a Sydney word. A kangaroo is a ‘yonga’ in Noongar. The kangaroo has a different name in each of the more than 300 indigenous languages of Australia.

What has been lost, with these words, is much, much more that ‘labels’. All language is local and, when the language falls into disuse, two important local connections are lost: a connection to ‘community’ and a connection to ‘land/country/earth/nature’. It is these connections which sustain the gift of life to the speakers of the language. When connection is lost, life looses meaning and is fragmented. In a way ‘lost words’ destroyed Noongar culture (aside: so the ‘americanisation’ of our Australian culture continues apace to disrupt Aussie culture. The most serious negative aspect of this is our importing of the ‘red/blue’ divisions, to add fuel to the already serious racial and religious divisions in Australia).

The destruction of language is an inevitable and tragic outcome of colonialism. A friend, a Noongar Elder, told me that when she was about five, she along with her older brother, were ‘stolen’ and placed in a ‘Christian’ mission. On two occasions she was physically punished: once when she spoke through a fence to her brother. Being darker, her brother was classified as ‘full blood’ and mixing with full bloods was forbidden; on the second occasion she was heard speaking Noongar in class, was rapped over the knuckles and told ‘never speak that filthy language’. The time has come, in Australia, for truth telling about what the Settlers have done to the hundreds of the world’s most ancient continuous indigenous cultures in Australia. This Elder now gives an annual “Welcome to County’, in lauguage, at the beginning of the school year.

Important ‘recovery’ steps can be made. Even though we must now use English as our ‘lingua franca’ (Noongar is an almost dead language) it’s use is now being encouraged and taught in school. In the daily bulletin in the school in which I worked, a Noongar Elder and I taught weekly written and spoken greetings in Noongar. I learned lots of new, ‘old’ words (old = >40k years old, long before there were any humans in the Americas) . I use these greetings when I meet Noongar people in the street and I heave learned that old words can begin a ‘rebuilding’ process for connection. We also taught the Noongar words for the six seasons and common plants and animals. Using the local ‘old’ Noongar words for local animals and places restores a connection with place where we are.

Words, like community, are, in origin, local. Some words from my childhood, like those words of racial abuse toward Noongar people, deserve to stay lost (= the ‘n’ word in the USA). Others words can provide a resurrection and restoration of community and connection to Boodja (land).

Christine Sine April 26, 2021 - 8:13 pm

Rodney thank you for this very thoughtful and thought provoking comment. As you say colonialism results in the destruction of language and culture and it is seen no where more tragically than in Australia. What you say here is very powerful: words can provide a resurrection and restoration of community and connection to the land not just for the Boodja but for all indigenous people. May we work to restore these kinds of words. We will all be better off as a result.

revrodneymarsh April 27, 2021 - 1:35 am

Thanks Christine. Also I note that traditional lost words that arise from a ‘place’ provide connection to land and community not just to indigenous people but also for we Settlers

Christine Sine April 27, 2021 - 8:37 am

You are so right Rodney, and as I read in the book Landmarks, these are some of the words that have been removed from the dictionary. It is not surprising that we have lost our connection to the land – we no longer have the words to express it.

revrodneymarsh April 27, 2021 - 4:43 pm

So true – No words nor a life of wonder (or the practices that support such a life -so thanks for your book)

Christine Sine April 27, 2021 - 4:50 pm

It bothers me a lot and I am passionate about doing what I can to help change the situation

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