A couple of years ago, I encountered a middle-school-aged kid who was listening to Sweet Child O’ Mine, a song with arguably one of the best guitar lines of all time. The song is inexplicably beautiful to me, a rough but poignant emotional tribute. I was so impressed that this kid knew this music. After all, we know how I feel about most of the music that you hear on popular stations these days, if you’re ever unfortunate enough to listen to such things. Here was someone, barely a teenager, who appreciated good music, music with poetry.
Take a yellow ribbon, for example. At one point, it was a popular symbol of remembrance for loved ones who were at war. Before being drafted into a memorial of battle (a fate befalling many symbols in our country), however, it was simply known in a song about a prisoner returning home to find he was still loved. In other times, both pre-dating and post-dating that particular song, it’s become a symbol for…well, you can almost insert your cause here. It’s been granted theological significance, military significance, symbolism of popular causes. That yellow ribbon has certainly made it’s rounds in our culture.
The lover of language in me wrestles with this, because I have a knee-jerk reaction against re-contextualizing things. Of course, it takes me about two seconds to realize that this is ridiculous, that everything is re-contexutalized, and that this is how language continues to dynamically meet the needs of those by whom it is spoken and written. The curious thing about these sorts of metamorphoses is that they tend to leave behind their bits of history. The roots of linguistic bits and pieces that slip so naturally from our tongues is sort of a specialized interest, studied seriously by only a niche of academics and occasionally pursued by geeks such as myself. My problem, I guess, is that, just like that kid listening to one of the greatest rock songs of all time and not even recognizing where it came from, we use expressions without understanding their significance and how they came to be.
I think it’s important to embrace the (respectful) evolutions of language and cultural symbols, because they allow us to communicate on a much higher level than we otherwise would. I also think that it’s important to remember the history of how we arrived at where we are, because a good deal of the power in our language is it’s history. Like us, it stands on the shoulders of what came before it, and is nothing without it’s past. Our language is so, so much more than empty words and phrases (even though it’s often carelessly used as such), and keeping in touch with where it came from is how we maintain our stewardship of it’s strength.