“`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/ Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;/ All mimsy were the borogoves, / And the mome raths outgrabe.”
The distinctive cadence of these whimsical words comes from the first stanza of Jabberwocky, a poem in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” (1872). A little of this lilt may provoke our curiosity, but promoting such novelty would soon amount to gibberish.
Even as guardrails are indispensible on the Going to the Sun Road, we need agreement about the meaning of words to understand each other. As cut flowers without water soon languish, language without common definition becomes meaningless. As a gas engine conks out if we use diesel, we fail as persons when, instead of engaged-life-with-others, we accept a selfish-shallow-alternate-reality. Agreed?
Etymologies – Fetus and Child
What about the modern alias – “fetus?” A person on the street might define “fetus” as: “A group of cells in the womb.” Ultrasound gives us more – pictures of a baby forming in the womb. And etymology helps too. In 1981, while researching information that led to forming an adoption agency, I was astonished to discover how the Romans used “fetus.” Although I did not footnote my now forgotten source L, I learned that “fetus” referred to “a child either in the womb or outside of it. ‘Fetus’ may be used until adolescence.” Surprised? Today’s OED notes: “In Latin, fetus sometimes was transferred figuratively to the newborn creature itself, or was used in a sense of “offspring, brood.”
Consider the similar etymology of “child.” “Child” comes from Old English “cild” – which is defined as a “fetus, infant, or newly born person.” And since etymology helps us define “fetus” or “child” as “person,” look what etymology does in defining “womb” – Old English “cildhama” – literally, “child-home!” If only a “child’s home” was her/his safe castle!
Momentarily, let’s return to Carroll’s poem. In the fifth stanza we find “galumphing” – another Carroll-created word. Remarkably, “galumphing” has become part of our language. A combination of “gallop’ and ‘triumphant,” the dictionary defines “galumphing” as “to march on exultantly.”
Sadly, the impersonal, dehumanized meaning of “fetus” has been galumphing. “No other class of human beings is ignored, misrepresented, or vilified more than preborn human beings” (Brian Fisher).
For example, I’ll interrupt the following online forum with my questions:
- “How a person defines their pregnancy is solely up to that person.”
Question: Must the Law of Unlimited Tolerance silence all other voices – the future voice of the child herself/himself, the other parent, the family, church and community, voices of compassion and hope?
- “Some choose to refer to their fetus as a fetus, some choose baby, some choose parasite, etc.”
Question: Does Unlimited Tolerance make it impossible to distinguish between person and parasite?
- “They are all correct terms.”
Question: When did everything become OK and nothing wrong? The life cycle of a culture can be divided into three phases: barbarism, civilization, and finally, decadence – “the moment in which people come to believe that there is no truth, or that all lies are equally true” (George Friedman, “Flashpoints”).
- “There doesn’t need to be a collective agreement on how an unborn baby is defined” (http://www.whattoexpect.com/forums/hot-topics-1/topic/meaning-of-fetus.html).
Question: How do we engage such world-weariness?
To what extent has this Unlimited Tolerance galumphed? After the above posting, another replied:
- “I think from a medical and legal perspective there needs to be collective agreement. But for individual women I fully agree with you.”
Question: If the person replying gives some respect to medicine and law, then how does he/she elevate the pregnant woman to be the sole arbiter in this life and death decision?
And then came another response:
- “Of course a fetus is living. It’s a living parasite. The cold virus is living as well. That fungus under you toenails? Yep, that’s alive. Just because something can grow, and it’s cells multiply does not mean that it has unalienable rights.”
Question: Does the intolerant cynicism of these “scientific” definitions runs deep because science cannot establish the meaning of persons?
Here we see Popper’s “paradox of tolerance” at work: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them” (Karl Popper, “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” 1962).
Will you help turn the tide? If not, self-defined reality, truthless decadence and unlimited tolerance, will continue to galumph – emptying life and the womb of meaning.
Beyond Etymologies to Scripture As Our Source of Truth
How refreshing to encounter Jesus, the Author of meaning. “People were also bringing babies (brephe) to Jesus…Jesus said: ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these’” (Luke18:15,16). Dr. Luke also uses “brephos” to describe John the Baptist when John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb (1:44). Timothy, as a “brephous” knew the Scriptures (2 Tim 3:15). So, the Greek, “brephos,” is similar to the Latin, “fetus,” and both are like our English, “child.” Aha.
Again and again the Bible – often God directly – gives value to children in the womb. Note: check your translation. Some versions mistakenly translate “beten” (lit. “womb”) as “birth.”
- Judges 13:5,7 – God wanted Samson to be a Nazarite from the womb. As a result, Samson’s mother followed a Nazarite diet from his conception – not from his birth. God regarded Samson as a person from conception.
- Psalm 139:13-16 – David says that God, the most important Person in the universe, made him in the secret place. In other words, God knew David before his mother even knew she was pregnant! Also, note the consistency of David regarding his personhood at conception (Ps. 22:10, 51:5).
- Isaiah 49:1,5 – From the womb God formed and called the Messiah.
- Jeremiah 1:5 – God knew Jeremiah from conception.
- Matthew 1:18-20 – Jesus is called a child from conception.
- Romans 9:10-13 – God decreed, “The older will serve the younger,” before the twins, Jacob and Esau, were born.
- Galatians 1:15 – God set Paul apart from his mother’s womb.
The bible shows us that children in the womb were to be protected. Although the Jews knew children were conceived with a sinful nature, they also valued children as blessings (Ps. 127:3-5). Not only were they a special gift of God the Almighty Creator – and made in his image! – they were also the hope of their Redeemer, Adam’s promised descendant who would free them from bondage to Satan (Gen. 3:15). Thus, Jews hallowed each child’s conception while awaiting the Child. After Christ came, each child is a possible beneficiary of his redeeming love.
Let’s return to Jabberwocky. From this poem another of Carroll’s words – “chortled” – has made its way into our dictionaries. Delightfully, “chortle” is defined as “a blend of chuckle and snort.”
Since “galumph” and “chortle” have changed our language, could we hope our upside-down world might someday be turned right for a fetus/child/brephos in the womb? Could such a little person be protected and, like John the Baptist, leap for joy – chortling?
Certainly, the day of healthy chortling will come. Let’s substitute “chortle” for “joy” and “rejoicing” in some of Jesus’ final words to his disciples: “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world chortles. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to chortling. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her chortling that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will chortle, and no one will take away your chortling” (John 16: 20-22).
Steve Bostrom is a descendant of Swedish homesteaders, husband of Via, father of eight, grandfather of eight, loves Helena and serves as State Minister in Montana for his denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America.
Post publishing note: The self-absorbed ramblings of Alice in Wonderland’s Humpty Dumpty include: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
Orwell’s “1984” – “The language was forever being altered, “to make all other modes of thought impossible. … This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings….”