Like Many people with nothing better to do, I often read obituaries. It is the print equivalent of walking through a cemetery, where whole lives are summed up on headstones and buried along with their times. I love reading about flying daredevils who rode the wings of biplanes in the 1930s, or Kentucky farmers who plowed their fields with teams of matched mules.
I am a longtime fan of public radio. It began years ago with Garrison Keillor, whose weekly monologues on Lake Wobegon became a regular feature of my Saturday evenings. With my transistor radio perched on my kitchen windowsill, I would put supper together during the first hour of the show.
I first heard the Lord’s Prayer in Mexico, during a family trip when I was 11 years old. I strayed from the Oaxaca market square, where my parents were bargaining over black pottery, and slipped into an old stone church, cool and dark. There were clusters of women in lace mantillas, and one or two solitary old men. Some were silent.
When I read in the newspaper recently that the U.S. Navy had decided to lift its ban on women serving on submarines, I remembered a woman who told me a story about how she communicated with her husband when he was serving aboard a submarine in the 1970s.
Watching my 13-year-old sit on the couch and text-message his pals, I intuitively know that our language—our use of words for communicating with one another—is at risk. Speed has become paramount. Using words accurately or thoughtfully seems about to become extinct.
Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and anyone who followed the media coverage of that occasion understands all too well that the identity of the civil rights leader is fiercely contested.
New inventions often result in new words, or neologisms. Radar, for instance, emerged as an acronym for a “radio detection and ranging” device. Cultural developments also evoke new words and phrases, such as cyberspace (originating from science fiction), soccer mom (from the world of politics) or prequel (from movies and pop culture).
A few years ago, when I asked the head of Renk Theological College in Southern Sudan to name his top priority for the school’s faculty and curriculum, he said without hesitation: “We need biblical language teachers.”
During the 1990-1991 Gulf War, George Dardess, an English teacher in Rochester, New York, watched on television as the U.S. dropped “smart bombs” on Baghdad. He felt anger and self-reproach. He turned to his wife and said, “I am complicit in this war through my ignorance. I don’t even know if I could find Iraq on a map.