Many of you may not know that I was English Major in in college. One of my favorite courses I ever took was Latin, not because Latin itself was so interesting, but because the professor who taught Latin was a philologist. Philology is the study of language. Philologists use written source material to find the earliest appearance of a word and/or words related to it. Professor Lennon taught me to look for nuances, small differences in meaning, in word use that change over time. As a study, it sounds very dry, but it’s not. Language is not static, but fluid—changing to fit the needs of the people using it. For example, the word text used to mean typeface or a body of writing. If someone from 1910 were to be transported to 2015, the highway signs “Don’t Text and Drive” would be very confusing. In 1910, text was not a verb.
Interestingly, the theme word for February’s scoutmaster minute, “clean,” has remained relatively unchanging. Clean means now what it meant in 1910. But, thanks to my lessons from Professor Lennon, when I think of clean I think of all the nuances of the word. What often comes to mind is not a dictionary definition, but sayings of my mother’s. One thing my mom used to say a lot when I was a kid, and I’m sure you’ll have no trouble believing it, is “you kids are driving me clean out of my mind.” In this use, you can see that clean means completely or entirely. The reason this pops into my mind when thinking about clean in a Boy Scout context, is that the Scout Law and Oath together express an intention to be both clean, as in un-dirty, but also morally straight, which is a clean of mind and habit, an unstained or untainted condition.
Now, think about the order of the words in the scout law. We are working the virtues in reverse order, but every week when you say the law, you say: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” There is deliberation in the order of these ideas. You have to get them all, completely and entirely to embody what it means to be a scout. A person who is untruthful, unclean, or morally muddled may never reach that state of awed respect that is reverence. Thinking about how completely the law is a guide for life makes me realize anew what a genius Baden-Powell is. Or as my mom would say, “he is real clean and swift.”