Words and hidden meanings

I am a staunch, self-professed, card-carrying Luddite. I am very suspicious of all technology, and I am a grudging (and somewhat hypocritical) user of it. Yes, I’ll admit that medical technology is generally a good thing because of how effectively it saves lives, and I’ll admit that I’m a rather compulsive e-mail checker, and I wouldn’t know what to do without a CD player in my car. (I refuse to purchase an iPod at this point in my life, although I’ll probably be dragged into it at some point.)

But I still find myself making the assumption that any new invention is bad and that it will change us and make us dependent on it in a nefarious way. Sort of a reverse chronological snobbery, in C. S. Lewis’s terms–anything old is good, and anything new is suspect.

So when I ran across a familiar word and a familiar phrase that derive from industrial language, I became a bit disturbed. I’m always fascinated by etymology, especially when it shows a certain shift in our culture.

I heard on an interesting NPR interview that when we speak of needing “down time,” we are borrowing this phrase from the early industrial era, when it referred to the unproductive time workers had when a machine had broken down. So somehow, we started comparing ourselves to machines that are broken and not accomplishing anything when we began applying this phrase to ourselves. We are not resting, we are simply having down time, time defined by what we are NOT doing: not producing anything of value.

I also read an article on Firstthings.com, one of my favorite websites, that pointed out that we don’t often use the term “procreation” anymore. Instead, we call it “reproduction”–a rather sterile (no pun intended) word rooted in a mechanical view of life, re-producing oneself. Here’s an excerpt:

“In his book, Toward a More Natural Science, Leon Kass asks us to “Consider the views of life and the world reflected in the following different expressions to describe the process of generating new life. Ancient Israel, impressed with the phenomenon of transmission of life from father to son, used a word we translate as ‘begetting’ or ‘siring.’ The Greeks, impressed with the springing forth of new life in the cyclical processes of generation and decay, called it genesis, from a root meaning ‘to come into being.’ . . . The premodern Christian English-speaking world, impressed with the world as a given by a Creator, used the term ‘pro-creation.” We, impressed with the machine [. . .] employ a metaphor of the factory, ‘re-production.'”

The author goes on to argue that this seemingly insignificant terminology reveals, and perhaps contributes to, a demeaning view of human life: “The language of the factory and of human dignity is as incompatible as would be the interchangeability of machine and life. Such degradation of language only leads to linguistic confusion and muddy thinking.”

We will do well to remember that, as this fascinating article says, language does indeed shape the way we think.

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