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  • Writer's pictureDonna Brown

Analyzing the use of words and what they mean

Words, they are tricky things. Some words bring an immediate reaction such as a nod or smile, others a wince or frown. We can laugh aloud when hearing a pun because of the arrangement or choice of the words. We often sit at the kitchen table pen in hand and ponder just the right words to write in a greeting card or stammer in public because our brains just can’t find the correct words for the occasion.

Sometimes the definition of a word is cut in stone and for centuries doesn’t change, then overnight a new definition is added. An example would be terms like spinster, one who spins wool, changing to an unmarried woman. More currently the word cookies, from chocolate chip variety to cookies in a computer browser. We adjust to words changing when they make sense, often in today’s world the meanings of common place words are being removed and replaced.

Weeks ago, a catalog full Halloween decoration arrived, and I leafed through it looking for decorating ideas to surprise my grandkids. Suddenly a heading caused me to stop and try to understand what they were selling, “Count Down to Halloween with our Halloween Advent Calendar.” Accompanying it was a photo of a large wooden haunted house with thirty-one little doors and behind each a place to store a treat.

Wait a Holy minute! Advent is a religious time consisting of the four Sundays in Christian churches that lead up to Christmas. It is a countdown to the birth of Christ and many children learn the concept through an advent calendar filled with chocolates. I looked up the definition and it says nothing about Halloween. So have a countdown to October 31 but please keep a Christian term out of it!

In the same catalog were several manger scenes that at first glance looked like normal creches with wisemen, camels, sheep and angels. When I looked more closely, I saw the Holy Family was made up of snowmen, gnomes or cartoon animals. If you search strange manger scenes on your computer you can find Mary, Joseph and Jesus represented by a Frankenstein family, Star Wars characters, dinosaurs and made out of hotdogs on a bed of sauerkraut.

What is wrong with our society? Is nothing sacred anymore? Is it only Christianity that is losing its reverence? I went back to my computer and searched for strange Muhammad images and strange Buddha pictures. No hotdogs, no gnomes. There were none. I tossed the catalog in the trash.

I had barely calmed down from the advent word frenzy when I was confronted by another last week in church. We had a visiting pastor who gave a sermon that at first had me puzzled, then annoyed and now I’m angry. By the way, growing up we called out minister by Reverend, but now the title is pastor. I have been told that makes them less lofty and more like the rest of us. I personally prefer my church leaders being less like me.

Anyway, the pastor began his sermon and told us about a new chaplain at Harvard University who has joined his fellow chaplains who are Protestant, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Catholic. The new chaplain is an atheist. We were then told of his many virtues by the visiting pastor who embraced this new chaplain as being a leader of the humanist movement, void of the existence of a God. He told us he feels the humanist movement will bring peace in the world.

Now I thought I may have misunderstood his point in giving a glowing example of an atheistic chaplain so after the service I chased him to his car and told him it made no sense to me. I agree that students who are atheist or agnostic need compassion and perhaps a counselor to look to for help, but why call him a chaplain if the definition of a chaplain is a religious leader? Very sweetly and with a smile he told me I needed to wrap my head around the importance of humanism and that the definition of chaplain has changed.

I then told him that as an English teacher and librarian words need meanings in a stable society or soon nothing would hold any meaning, especially when pertaining to a religion. He smiled and answered, “Try to wrap you head around it,” and drove away.

I believe this change of meaning of both advent and chaplain is an attempt by our secular society to water down religion and make a belief in God, any God, less important. If religion is minimized and the meanings of its words diluted, then soon religion will become irrelevant. For a week I have tried wrapping my head around it, but all the wrapping I can do is with duct tape, so my head doesn’t explode.

Donna Brown is a former Hammonton Middle School librarian and a columnist for The Gazette. To reach Donna Brown, send an email to


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