Say It Quickly, Friend; The Words Are Changing Even As We Speak!

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The other night my wife and I watched actor Sam Waterston portray Abraham Lincoln delivering what is called “the Cooper Union speech” on C-Span. Harold Holzer’s recent book claims this 1860 speech actually made Lincoln president.

In preparation for the re-enactment of the speech, I pulled down a biography on Lincoln and read up on the occasion. In the middle of the oration, Lincoln has a line that smacked me right between the eyes. It was so out of place, I could not believe it was coming from a historical figure from over 140 years back. He said, “That is cool.” He did. It’s in there, in black and white.

The context was this. South Carolina was threatening to withdraw from the Union if a Republican was elected president in the election later that year. So, if you elect a Republican, the state leaders said, and we secede, it will be your fault. Lincoln commented, “That is cool.”

I watched as Sam Waterston read the speech and uttered that line. Not a single comment was made in the followup discussion about those three words, but I lay awake that night wondering. Next day, I went through Professor Holzer’s book looking for some explanation, and found none. That’s when I decided to e-mail him.


Aren’t e-mails wonderful? Celebrities and important writers read them and frequently respond to them. Holzer answered my query the same day. Here is his reply:

“‘That is cool.’ I have gotten this question more than any other. According to lexicons of the period, it means ‘that is coldly callous and indefensible!’ It’s all in the translation, I guess. Thanks for writing. Harold.”

That cleared it up. Words of slang we might use to indicate something unusually pleasant or interesting Lincoln employed for something truly weird or perplexing. Had he written that same speech today, he might have said (in place of ‘that is cool’), “Well, duh!” Or, maybe not.

I love word studies. These sounds we create in our brains, form in our throats and mouths, and eject into the surrounding atmosphere carry information on how we feel about various subjects and conditions. And because life changes, the words may grow to carry completely new messages.

My old seminary professor Ray Frank Robbins used to remind us, “Words do not have meanings; they have usages.”

The King James Bible, translated in 1611, illustrates this. When Jesus returns, Paul said in I Thessalonians 4, “we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord shall not prevent those who have fallen asleep.” Modern translations capture the original meaning of that word: “shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.”

In the early 1700s, British architect Sir Christopher Wren was showing the Queen of England through the newly rebuilt St. Paul’s Cathedral. For an hour, her majesty followed Wren, soaking up his explanations without uttering a sound. Finally, at the conclusion of the tour, she turned to the architect and said, “It is awful. It is artificial. It is amusing.”

Wren was thrilled and bowed in gratitude. He knew the queen was complimenting him. Three centuries ago, ‘awful’ meant ‘full of awe,’ ‘articifial’ meant ‘artistic,’ and ‘amusing’ meant ‘amazing.’ The meanings have changed.

Only one word never changes.

I find it fascinating that one of the terms by which Scripture knows Jesus Christ is “The Word.” (See John 1) Theologians wax eloquent for hours on the meaning of that term in that context, and with good reason. But one does not have to be theologically trained to grasp the essence of its meaning.

If you wish to know someone, you listen to his words. My words convey my heart, my thoughts, my identity. As “The Word,” Jesus shows us the heart of God, the thoughts of God, God Himself. “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus said in John 14.

Language is fluid. All other words on the planet are changing. Only this Word is unchanging. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)

“I am the Lord God. I change not.” (Malachi 3:6)

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