Quaker Universalist Conversations

Words, Words for World Communication

In the last few months in the U.S., we are testing our language, searching for the right words. For examples, do we use “not guilty,” exoneration, vindication, exculpation, absolution, assoil, absolve, or acquittal? These are all related, but each is different in nuance and significance for our future.

Selecting the right words is a universal human challenge. How do we to find and use language to express and communicate to others in public discernment processes?

English is a large a rich language, with more words than any other current language, but English is not a perfect language. Other languages have fewer word choices, but often serve up specific words to capture important nuances that are underdeveloped in English.

A word cloud from this essay
The English words from which to choose often arise from the ancient, rarely used Latin language, and they are fused with religion and western culture:

  • “Not guilty” links to particular conclusions in criminal court contexts.
  • “Exoneration” is the complete clearance of blame or criminal charges and implies no basis for the original accusation. “Exoneration” partners the Latin ex and onus to remove the “burden.”
  • “Vindication” clears the name and aggressively acknowledges that the person was correct from the beginning, as in avenge and revenge and vengeance and vindictive.
  • “Exculpation” derives from the Latin ex and culpa, is the opposite of mea culpa, and means “not my fault.” However, it leaves the question of factual wrongdoing issue open.
  • “Absolution” points to forgiveness for bad behavior committed in a religious context. It considers the sins to have been committed, but it relieves the offender of the guilt and consequences of the wrongdoing.
  • “Acquittal,” with a sense of criminal trial process, points to the community judgement of innocence, but possibly due to lack of sufficient evidence or to procedural mistake, rather than to actual vindication.


The Latin roots of our English language remind us of our legacy in earlier languages. They also point to the religious institutions that provided so much of our legal roots, lending a sense of dignity and gravity to the current public discussion.

Even with all these choices, we still struggle to clarify our understanding and to communicate with others. Cultivating the skill of listening patiently to others helps those in English and in all languages.

Quakers: Quakers honor the skills of listening and precise language, but also recognize the limits of Quaker vocabulary in pointing to the reality they experience. “That of God” is both a contribution and a blunt instrument.

Questions:

  • How do Quakers contribute to the vocabulary used in current public discussion?
  • Can Quakers see language contributions in other constituencies and traditions?


Reference & Image

Melissa Mohr, “Is it better to be exonerated or vindicated?Christian Science Monitor Weekly (May 6, 2019) p.33.

Image: A word clouds formed from the words in the six listed points, created using Word Cloud Generator by Jason Davies, a freelance software developer based in London, UK.