Did you know that the Oxford English Dictionary is updated four times every year? That would have been impossible before the Internet, when the OED was only available in printed book form. Now that it can be updated electronically, it seems that keeping up with our expanding English language is a constant job. This summer alone, the OED added over 600 new “words, phrases and senses” to their “definitive record of the English language.”

There are so many versions of English, spoken around the US and across the world—and I’m not just talking about how many words there are to indicate a table or express disappointment. Today, I’m pondering our specialized vocabularies and our facility with different portions of that broader cultural phenomenon we call language.

I’ve spent significant portions of the past month immersed in the editing of a Doctor of Ministry dissertation. The work has been fascinating, both in what I’ve learned about one aspect of multicultural ministry and in coming to terms with how many vocabularies one culture can utilize.

First, there’s the vocabulary of Christian ministry, with all its fancy words for different aspects of the ways we understand and live out our faith. Having studied and worked in Christian ministries of one sort or another for much of my adult life, this language is quite familiar to me. Then there’s the vocabulary of cultural anthropology, with its various descriptors and theories about how we all interact. This is not my background, but I can intuit much from context and close, careful reading.

Then there’s the language of editing, complete with its own vocabulary, rules, and practices. Every time I work with a new client, I realize how much of this language I now understand on an unconscious, gut level, purely from habitual and heavy practice.

Then there are other vocabularies—not all of them using the written word—that are quite foreign to me. One evening I was reading a blog post that referenced another creative endeavor that she called “his #WMD project”—and I realized I had no idea what that meant. Upon investigation, I learned that it was a multimedia mix of written word and video recording. As I read and then listened, I realized that I had no idea how to create that video collage of multiple image windows—and that it was probably as natural to this younger man to create it as it was for me to correctly format the complex footnotes for that DMin dissertation.

We aren’t the only generation creating new vocabularies. For thousands of years, in multiple regions of the world, humans developed the language of flowers, or floriography, which perhaps reached its height in Victorian England. Every color of rose had a meaning. Flowers developed multiple meanings, and how flowers were arranged and combined had meaning as well. Today, however, I imagine there are few Americans who choose flowers based on anything more than “red roses are appropriate for Valentine’s Day.”

One way that my parents keep their brains sharp is by regularly tackling crossword puzzles. This has made them aware that they lack certain vocabularies, such as the names and terms associated with many sports. One way that my own brain stays sharp is by immersing myself in the new vocabularies—such as cultural anthropology—associated with my editing jobs.

I’m willing to learn new nonverbal vocabularies, too. I have recently created and edited my first digital audio recording and will soon need to dive more deeply into video—but these are not vocabularies I can yet easily comprehend. I will do so because I feel God calling me to expand the vocabularies I use in ministry.

What new vocabularies are you discovering or engaging? How are you called to expand yourself in ministry or service?

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