May 11, 2018
In 2013, Hallmark sparked a controversy by changing a single word in a Christmas song. Ever since 1877, the traditional English lyrics of Decks the Halls, originally written by the Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant, included the words “Don we now our gay apparel.” Many within the LGBT community protested Hallmark’s new version, “Don we now our fun apparel.” Obviously, Hallmark had taken note that the word “gay” that at one time meant festive, joyful, or colorful had now taken on a different meaning. It had become the preferred designation of those who adopt a certain lifestyle.
Through common usage or deliberate choice, the meanings of words morph over time. “Awful” once described something that inspired reverence or awe, e.g. the awful majesty of God. Today, it can mean not fashionable or well-groomed or sickly as in the comment “he looks awful.” It can also mean that something is harmful, bad or terrible, as in “she left an awful mess.” It could even mean great, as in “an awful amount of rain.”
Still in transition is the word “hook up.” People speak about hooking up something, e.g. an electrical device or cable. Some, however, now speak about hooking up with someone, i.e. meeting them or even having casual sex. Times changed. Contexts changed. Words take on new meanings.
One religious word that has changed from a positive to a pejorative meaning, causing confusion among deeply religious people, is the word “proselytism.” Originally, the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament passed the word “proselyte” into modern languages with a neutral meaning. It simply meant a convert, someone who changed his or her opinion or religion. And, proselytism meant the attempt to persuade someone to make such a change. But, today proselytism is almost universally seen as a sinister activity when it comes to religious beliefs.
On several occasions, Pope Francis has strongly condemned proselytism. In the question and answer session during his Oct. 13, 2016 meeting with Lutherans, the Holy Father answered a young girl’s question about trying to convert a friend. He said, “It is not licit that you convince them of your faith; proselytism is the strongest poison against the ecumenical path.” Similarly, the Pope has said, “Proselytism among Christians, therefore, in itself, is a grave sin.” And also has said, “The Church is not a soccer team that goes around seeking fans.”