One’s vocabulary says a lot about life, society

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 1, 2013

Syndicated columnist David Brooks recently wrote an interesting article titled “What Our Words Tell Us.”  He shared about a Google database that has calculated how many times a particular words was used in the 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008.

Brooks cited research by several people, based on this database that seems to reflect changes in our society. For instance, since 1960, the use of words such as “self,” “standout,” and “unique” were used more frequently; whereas the use of words like “community,” “share,” and “united” declined.

During the 20th century, moral terms like “virtue,” “decency” and “conscience” were used less frequently, as were words such as “honesty,” “patience” and “compassion.”  There was 49 percent drop in the use of words like “thankfulness” and “appreciation” and a 66 percent decline in the use of “bravery” and “fortitude.”

Usage of words like “kindness” and “helpfulness” declined, while words such as “discipline” and “dependability” rose.  To research a particular word, go to Google books Ngram Viewer.

Brooks surmised that the words we use tell us that we are an individualistic society, less morally aware. I think the pattern of word usage reflects our society’s “it’s all about me” attitude.

Word usage has changed and the meaning of words has also changed. From my research, I found that the word tide once meant “time,” as used in Yuletide and eventide. The word prove originally meant “to test” and manufacture was defined as a craftsman making “something by hand.”

“Awful” used to mean “full of awe” or “inspiring wonder or fear” – now it’s describes something negative. A mouse was commonly called a rodent; but now we also think of it as a computer device.

The meaning of the word “tolerance” has changed in our culture today. The first use of the word dates back to 1412 when it originally meant endurance and fortitude or to “survive or remain unaffected by an unpleasant or unwanted phenomenon,” according to an article in Salvo Magazine. By the late 1950s, tolerance implied “the supporting of ideas, values, and practices that differed from one’s own.”

In recent years, Chuck Colson has noted tolerance now means “only one point of view is acceptable for public discourse.”  He observed that tolerance should mean everybody’s point of view is going to be respectfully listened to.  “That is not the case today.  Tolerance has been defined as, ‘Here is the creed by which we, the cultural elite, think you should live, and if you’re opposed to that, you’re intolerant.’”

So, those who believe in a Biblical view of human sexuality that states a man shall be united to “his wife and they shall become one flesh” are often labeled as intolerant (Genesis 2:24).

For 103 years, Boy Scouts have recited the Scout Oath, which includes the promise “to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.” The last two words apparently offend some homosexuals and others who have demanded the organization change its founding principles.

There’s a certainty that will not change. Isaiah 40:8 reminds us, “The Word of our God stands forever.”



Jan White is an award-winning religion columnist.  Her email address is