A few days ago I was involved in an email disagreement, not entirely pleasant, about the meaning of the word “conservative.” One point of contention was my assertion that the word is useful even though its meaning is imprecise. The other party insisted that it must have a very definite, almost scientific or scholastic, meaning, or he would admit it to have none at all.
This started me thinking about the circumstances in which such precision in language is and is not obtainable, and is or is not desirable. Fittingly enough, a day or two later I ran across this remark by Edward Thomas, an English poet of the early 20th century, in a New Criterion review of a new edition of his work: “[words] never consent to correspond exactly to any object unless, like scientific terms, they are first killed.” (I’m not sure whether I’ve ever read any of Thomas’s poetry. If I have, it would have been only one or two poems in anthologies. On the basis of what’s quoted in the review, I want to read more.)
These two approaches to language, the scientific and the poetic, are not necessarily as mutually exclusive as Thomas makes them out to be, but they are different. I am definitely of Thomas’s party—imprecision is the price of nuance and color and resonance and indeed of another kind of precision, the kind in which words are distinguished by subtle connotations. It also recognizes that the essence of reality will always elude language. Both approaches have their place, obviously, but if one wishes to speak with exact precision, one is always fighting against a living language, which is always changing. As Eliot complains in “Burnt Norton”:
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
There’s no way to stop this. The words of a living language are always stretching here and contracting there, dividing, sliding out of the places where they began and into places where they were never meant to be, or disappearing altogether. The word “fascism” is a good example: originally it referred to the specific ideas of a specific political party, but now it’s commonly applied to any violently oppressive political movement, and most people who use it could not give it any more specific definition than that. “Ghost” is an even better example; two hundred years ago it did not sound at all strange to refer to one person of the Trinity as “the Holy Ghost,” but now the term invites silly jokes.
But there are times when one needs to kill a word, to fix it with one meaning for all future time. Theology and philosophy have need of this—not all theology and philosophy, but those applications in which it is important to fix eternal ideas in clear terms that will be understood a thousand years from now. I prefer poetry, and a poetic theology. But a formal and scientific theology is needed, too.
And so I think the Church is making a mistake in letting go of Latin. To say that it is a dead language means that all the words in it have been usefully killed, in Thomas’s sense. And so I suspect that it will be revived, because a Church which holds beliefs that don’t change needs to be able to express them in a language that won’t change. Or at least one that changes much more slowly than does a living one.
Dead words are well suited for stating abstract truth on the one hand, and physical facts, on the other. But to speak in a way that does justice to something organic and alive requires living words. When I put up the first version of this site, I had as an epigraph these words which I long ago read attributed to Eugene Ionesco, although I can’t remember where I read them and haven’t been able to track them down: Not everything is unsayable in words—only the living truth.