Global, please, not Universal

Universal Credit and the universal flood – really?  The universe was not flooded, and Universal Credit is not even global.  It is a social security benefit in the United Kingdom which, having rolled together and replaced six other benefits, has been called ‘universal’.  However, the UK is not the Universe.

Many people commonly and wrongly use the word universe when they mean global, or countrywide in the case of Universal Credit, or simply widespread.  The Universe consists of all of space and time together with their contents.  Global applies to the Earth.  Noah’s flood was global, not universal.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights “sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected.”  It does indeed apply to astronauts, although I wonder if its framers even imagined space travel beyond the Earth at the time of its composition.  Nevertheless, I suspect that it was a deliberate and thoughtful choice of words in an era when people understood the meaning of words.  However, I may be wrong in this assumption.

Nowadays, we have a language deficit, which is part of the dumbing down of western society.  Never was knowledge more available on a global basis, but this does not translate into people being more knowledgable in the use of their language, far less in the things that matter.

The language battle is the manipulation of language to promote the secular agenda.  Slowly the Judaeo-Christian ethic is being replaced by redefining words.  Confusion reigns when communication is obscured, and both body language and verbal language are basic to communication.  Even silence speaks volumes.

It does not help when confusion is added to chaos.  This reminds us of the need to bring clarity to another confusing word.  Cosmos is another word for the universe, as used in cosmology (the study of the cosmos or universe).  The problem is that it derives from the Greek word kosmos which was in general use for the ‘world’, rather than the ‘universe’.  While some people misuse the word universe for the world, we see similar confusion the other way round, in using the Greek kosmos ‘world’ for ‘the universe’.  The Greek kosmos is used with this worldly sense 186 times in the Christian New Testament and it occurs 28 times in the Septuagint (LXX) version, an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament but, significantly, with a different meaning.

So where did the ‘Universe’ interpretation come from?  The basic meaning of the verb kosmeo is to bring order out of confusion, to arrange things in an orderly fashion, but the meaning and application of the noun kosmos have changed over time so that at least four different phases of meaning have been identified.  It was applied at an early period to ornaments and jewellery, and to the present day we can see this root idea in the word ‘cosmetics’.  Such was Pythagoras’ (c.570 – c. 495 BC) admiration for the star-studded heavens, like jewels scattered in an orderly fashion over the heavens, that he is accredited with being the first to apply kosmos to the heavens.  Some say he used kosmos for the whole material Universe, including the Earth, but others think he confined kosmos to the star-studded heavens.  Conceptually and etymologically, the latter seems more appropriate.

Pythagoras pre-dates the Greek LXX translation of the Bible and his usage is seen throughout the LXX, where kosmos is used for ornaments, jewellery and the ‘host’ or stars of heaven, and its later application to the world, as in the Greek New Testament, is wholly absent.

The first use of kosmos in the LXX is in the second chapter of the Bible: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth and all the host of them’ Gen 2:1, where kosmos translates ‘host’, not ‘heaven’ nor ‘earth’, indicating the stars of the Universe.  So from the time of Pythagoras kosmos has referred to the heavens.

This brings us to the etymology and use of cosmos for the Universe in the English-speaking world. It is probable that Pythogoras’ use was simply transferred to the English-speaking world in the scientific age, which frequently uses Greek words for coined terms.  The later Greek usage of kosmos for the ‘world’ is not its original meaning, and Christian usage developed it even further from the material world to the moral world, the ethical world.  The term ‘world’ continues to develop and is applied to the world of sport, business, finance, etc., demonstrating that language is not static but develops.  A Greek word that has completely changed its application is archipelago ‘chief sea’, which originally referred to the Aegean Sea, but has changed its focus to mean the collection of islands in such a sea.

The original application of kosmos was to ornamentation and jewellery, which is the meaning of its second occurrence in the LXX at Ex 33:5.  Pythagoras noted that the host of heaven looked like jewellery studding the heavens.  This reminds us that God created order out of chaos and the creative image of God in man has been doing so ever since, while the devilish influence upon man has been adding chaos and confusion, creating disorder.

Cosmos has the root idea of bringing order out of chaos, to clarify the confusion by arranging things in order.  Thus Wikipedia accessed today says: ‘Pythagoras first used the term cosmos (Ancient Greek: κόσμος) for the order of the universe.’ Similarly in our day, cosmos is applied in many different ways, but with the basic idea of ordering things.  Synonyms of the New Testament, R. C. Trench, para. 59, sources its origin and development more fully.  So, like many words, its meaning changed with usage and time, which is now happening in a thoughtless manner to ‘universal’.

Christianity deals in truth, and part of the Christian defence of society from false religion is to clarify the meaning of words.  Christians should be careful in their use of words.  Fake news and lies are interfering with human communication and co-operation.


15 Jun 2018: Universal Credit has been discredited.  The National Audit Office has criticised its slow roll out, suggests that it may be more expensive than the system it replaces, and may never be value for money.

18 Mar 2019: Universal Basic Income (UBI) proposed by the next Democratic Presidential candidate Andrew Yang is a good idea if it was Global Basic Income unless he thinks that astronauts will not be paid enough in the future.  Earlier generations were better educated and Martin Luther King called the same concept ‘guaranteed income‘ but Ellon Musk calls it “universal basic income” (possibly his aim to populate Mars has distorted his vocabulary) as does Mark Zuckerberg.

Yang describes himself: “I’m not a career politician—I’m an entrepreneur who understands the economy.”  It sounds as if Donald Trump has changed the credentials for Presidents and this is the Democratic alternative.

However, his doomsday prophesy that “this time, the jobs will not come back” is not only Luddite but part of the short-sighted ‘project fear’ becoming so familiar to the public.  Rather, the jobs will change and we need to teach adaptability and transferable skills.

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