August 23, 2012 Steve Bostrom

ESSAY 05: DULL

 
“Dull” is a word that comes to us from Old English – dol – about the year 1200. Originally it meant “slow-witted, foolish, stupid.”   Today people use expressions like:

  • In his case, the elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor. 
  • He is missing a few buttons on his remote control. 

Often, when we castigate ourselves for our own stupidity, we are more harsh.

By the early 1300’s, our word developed the sense of “blunt, not sharp.” And we mix the two meanings together:

  • He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer or
  • He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.

“Dull” has a way of growing.  It grew to include being “boring” in the1580s. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 “Dictionary of the English Language” negatively defines dull as:  Not exhilarating; not delightful; and then gives this example: To make dictionaries is dull work.

The prodigious dictionary work of the irascible and articulate Samuel Johnson may have had tedious moments but, overall, it was anything but “dull.” In the preface Johnson complains about the ‘energetic’ unruliness of the English tongue.  What energy he displayed in wrestling, subduing and untangling this tongue.  First published in 1755, the dictionary took just over eight years to compile, required six helpers, and listed 40,000 words. Each word was defined in detail, the definitions illustrated with quotations covering every branch of learning. It was a huge scholarly achievement, a more extensive and complex dictionary than any of its predecessors (British Library: Learning).

Now, let’s talk about your vocabulary.  Most likely, it is dull.  Like Homer Simpson much of what you hear and say is “Blah, Blah, Blah.”

Reluctant wordsmith, fear not.  In terms of sheer numbers, you have a greater verbal repertoire than the 40,000 words described in Johnson’s Dictionary.  Geoffrey Miller declares that most adults have a vocabulary of about 60,000 words (The Mating Mind, Random House, 2000)!  Between the ages of eighteen months and eighteen years, you learned ten to twenty words a day! Prodigious!

Let’s give some perspective to that accomplishment.  There are:

  • 8,674 different Hebrew words in the Bible,
  • 5,624 different Greek words, and
  • 12,143 different English words in the King James Version.
  • In his complete works, Shakespeare used 31,534 different words.
  • Statisticians estimate that Shakespeare’s vocabulary was 10% larger than yours – approximately 66,534 words.

“What,” you may respond, “my vocabulary approximates Shakespeare’s?!  No way!”

Yes, “way.” In comparing ourselves to a verbal genius like Shakespeare, the reason we feel “dull” is that we rarely access many of the words in our vocabulary.  We are comfortable with “dull.” Miller observes that we dumb down the way we talk so that our most frequent one hundred words account for 60 percent of all conversations.  Our most common four thousand words account for 98 percent of our conversations.  “Blah, Blah, Blah.”

Must comfortable monotony win?  No, grab hold of this reality.  For 2 percent of our conversations – or more! – we can access an additional 56,000 words!  What a thrill – when we speak to God – when we speak to others – what potential we have!  Why settle for insipid dullness?

We don’t need to.  Consciously or subconsciously, we recall the exhilaration of learning – new words – new thoughts – ten to twenty new words a day when we were children.  And, our physiology helps us yearn for new words.  The amygdala is a portion of the brain which has new circuits built through learning and practice.  In other words, the more we think, read, talk and write, the more we stimulate our amygdala, the greater our capacity is with words.

During college, I carried a Day-Timer – a pocket-sized calendar.  My goal – to write down a new word each day – from conversation – from class – from reading.  But, when I became a man, I foolishly put such habits behind me.  Writing these essays has reawakened that yearning.  Has reading these essays or hearing the podcasts given you a desire to get past dullness?

Let’s talk “big picture.” God could have made the world flat and gray and dull.  He didn’t. Dryden’s A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, 1687, enchants us with this picture of the beginning.

From harmony, from Heav’nly harmony,
This universal frame began.
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
‘Arise ye more than dead.’
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And music’s pow’r obey.

Who is the Person behind that “music?”  Peter tells us to pay careful attention to Scripture because it was written by men (who) spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). The word Peter chooses for that activity of the Holy Spirit – the prophets being carried along – is the same word that Greek translators used when translating Genesis 1 – when the Spirit was “hovering” over chaos.  The result of that “hovering” was creation!

God could have made you dull.  He didn’t.  Listen to the “music!” When the Spirit of the living God “hovers” over us, we move past dreary “dullness.”  When we are inarticulate, he prays for us.  When we are called upon to recount the work of God in our lives, Jesus promised that the Spirit would be there giving us words.  The Spirit of the living God can stimulate the amygdala he created to help us express our connection with God and one another in a fascinating universe.

At a writing conference I spoke with an author – a Christian whose first book was a great success – it sold over one million copies.  Now, in his mid-70’s, he said that he is enjoying a surge of creativity he has not known in decades.  Must we only say that his amygdala is being stimulated?  Can we go so far as to say that the Spirit is hovering over him?  Let’s simply say that our lives are bound up in God more profoundly than we know.  He is the antidote for dullness.

Father God, give us our daily bread and deliver us from dullness.

Sucking out (some of) the marrow-nourishment from the bone-words with you,

Steve Bostrom

PS If you have sought the antidote for dullness in some form of violence, addiction or despair, ask God for Jesus.  If you have somehow associated “dullness” with Jesus, here are two quotes that may help you reconsider.

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” – Annie Dillard Teaching a Stone to Talk, 1988

We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine — ‘dull dogma,’ as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man — and the dogma is the drama. . . This is the dogma we find so dull — this terrifying drama which God is the victim and the hero. If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore — on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certifying Him ‘meek and mild,’ and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”  – Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos, 1949

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