Recently I listened to a politician’s acceptance speech of an honored position. His speech and the spirit with which he gave it was one of the best I have heard – transparent, gracious, modest and respectful of political opponents. I believe he understands the importance of humility in life, and the danger of a “proud spirit” especially in regards to leadership. But something else that was said caught my attention, and filled my thoughts the next morning.
In the speech the politician mentioned that his colleagues in the chamber were like family. Normally I would understand this definition of family to be a more general application of the term, but what intrigued me is how the term was applied to this situation after honoring his direct family, and those families that were created by the children birthed through their marriage. English is sometimes a strange language in that one word can be so universally spoken to encompass ideas that are not the same, and actually work against each other. It is no fault of the speaker that caused me to consider this peculiarity of our language.
A family is traditionally known as the building block of society that is uniquely positioned to create new members of the human race. It is a place where the beauty and ecstasy of sexual expression that can result in offspring is legitimately exercised by parents with each other. Although dictionary definitions of family have recently expanded beyond this understanding to generalize this definition, the fundamental understanding exists among people that understand our world to be the result of a Creator.
A family also traditionally refers to people of a common lineage and those who join within that common lineage by marriage. Recently the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition changed to include an even more generalized definition:
the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children, also any of various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to the traditional family
The fourth definition in Merriam-Webster is the one articulated by my politician friend:
a group of people united by certain convictions or a common affiliation
What struck me anew was how this term has come to mean so many ideas, while leaving the most essential meaning diluted in our communication. One has to interpret the meaning of the term based on context aided by cultural values adopted by the listener. In result, different groups of people can hear the same term and have an entirely disparate understanding of what the speaker intended to communicate. In a society where definitions matter to societal cohesiveness, this generalization serves to purposely confuse and divide us over time. For the most fundamental building block of society, the husband/wife/children unit to be so maligned by not having a unique word in our vocabulary seems to be a purposeful and nefarious assault on that society, especially since the term historically has been understood to primarily refer to that unit of society.
I’m not sure how to recover a term that uniquely defines the societal unit that undergirds a society that trusts in God per the motto inscribed on our currency and plastered on our chambers of government. But I wonder if that would be a good start to bringing clarity to our discussions in regards to what benefits, and what harms a society that believes that all are created equal due to the nature of our existence and the benevolence of our Creator.