The Oxford Online Dictionary gives two definitions of ‘Integrity’: first, the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; second, the state of being whole and undivided. It isn’t very clear to me how important or valued either definition of integrity is in the modern day. It isn’t uncommon for very honest people to succumb to the seduction of ‘slick practice’; to mislead or distract someone without actually telling a lie. ‘Have you ever disobeyed an order?’ ‘I follow orders, but my superiors and I have not always agreed.’ Many people would be satisfied with that response, but the speaker actually avoided answering the question with intelligent noise.
The second definition of Integrity could refer to many things. The integrity of your ship’s hull will be compromised by a hidden reef. There is the integrity of a group effort. There is also the integrity of a style. Some artists are very concerned with this—not only do they want to create a particular image or sound, they want to do it in a certain way, usually the original way. Part of the problem is that fewer people know ‘how it was done’. Military invasions, civil wars, and natural disasters have lost us knowledge that had been accruing for hundreds or thousands of years. In the 1940s, for example, Mao’s armies invaded many temples and monasteries, destroying not only scrolls of scripture, but books on medicine, martial arts, and philosophical teachings. Many works of art were destroyed. The Native Americans have sustained similar losses of cultural wisdom and art.
There is integrity of a group effort. We live in a time in which individuality is very important (and I grew up in a time when nonconformity was the rage—they even had a uniform!) These days, dissention within a group seems to be quite popular. We’ve become so individualistic that thinking as a group is very challenging.
My personal lament, which I know is shared by others, is the loss of integrity of language. As I’ve written before, of course language will evolve over time. New technology, new approaches to existing problems and conditions, will necessitate new vocabulary and word usages. I am unable to explain the need to substitute the distortion of one word, such as ‘ask’, for a perfectly good contemporary word like ‘invitation’. The frequent overuse of words blunts their meaning.
Over time, the meaning of words changes through conversational usage. It can be very interesting to observe. Take, for example, the beginning of this collect, taken from the Book of Common Prayer (1662): Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings…. Some might think He’s doing that all ready, but what it means here is ‘go before us’, ‘precede us’. It may well be that in ‘preventing us’ (1662) He is also ‘preventing us’ (2014), but that’s another matter.
Originally, the word presently meant, ‘very soon’. ‘I will answer your question presently, but first….’ Currently, it’s used to mean ‘now’. I am presently sitting at my desk.
I was recently caught out making a linguistic error of my own. I referred to doing a project and then doing a post mortem when it was done, and the man with whom I was speaking said, ‘Now there’s a word people often misuse!’ He was right, of course. Post mortem refers to an examination after death, as any CSI fan can tell you. What I should have said was, post hoc, meaning ‘after the fact’, or literally, ‘after this’.
Can we say that these changes are the result of loss of linguistic integrity? Does integrity break down over time, or does it evolve? Presently I can’t say, but I may find out presently. (Who could resist?)
So the next time you’re in your place of worship, bow your head reverently and say, ‘Prevent us presently, O Lord, from post mortems.’
I’m not sure I’d understand, but I think He will.
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