Bill Wilson's Use of Words

I confess I am a LITTLE obsessed with the historical roots of words that Bill W. used in writing the Twelve Steps. Words can have very vague or very precise meanings, depending on who is using them and when. For example, lawyers choose words for their precise meanings. Bill W studied law for more than two years. He passed every class, but for some reason Bill never took the bar exam and so never earned the right to be called a "Lawyer".

Still, Bill's legal training must have come in handy when he began writing the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. He knew that the lives of his alcoholic readers were on the line when they read the Big Book. He was painfully aware that words could be slippery things, especially in the hands of alcoholics who were well-practiced in evasion and denial. When Bill re-examined the six Oxford Group tenants that helped him get sober, he reportedly found there too many loopholes in the wording; loopholes that alcoholics might use to wriggle out of sobriety. So, he recast those six tenants into twelve steps. I assume he did that to close those loopholes using clearer wording.

My point is that I now pay close attention to the precise meanings of words in the original Twelve Step literature because I suspect Bill W. did too. I first got that idea from Joe & Charlie's "Big Book Comes Alive" lecture series. They carefully examined the exact definition of such words as "resent", "believe", "decide", and many others. I went an extra step and found a 1930-era Webster's Dictionary since it contained exactly the definitions Bill had at his disposal.

Have I taken it too far? I suppose it is possible. I have no professional training that relates to recovery or the roots of word definitions. Most of what I have said above come from my own assumptions. But the process of looking up the precise definitions of Twelve Step words has helped me stay sober for another day. One day at a time.

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TRIVIA: I have read that Bill W. began writing the Big Book of AA under the strict editorial review of some 40 recovered alcoholics. They probably wanted the book to have the continuity and tone that comes from the pen of a single author. Unfortunately, there were countless disagreements about the words Bill W. chose. In a particularly important example, some loved the word "God" because of what it meant to them. Others objected to the word "God" because it meant something different to them. I have no idea how Bill and the group reconciled their differing definitions. It is possible someone pulled out a current Webster's dictionary and read this definition to the group: "God n. - a being of greater than human attributes and powers". Bill did settle on a similar phrase—a power greater than human power—to refer to God. Coincidence? Maybe. But, as a student of the law, Bill knew that choosing words with well-documented definitions was a wise strategy. This would ensure that if anyone raised later objections to the word "God", a dictionary could be used to settle the matter. Plus, there was another benefit to that strategy. In the early days of AA, the Big Book was mailed by the thousands (later millions) to individuals and groups across America. Since AA groups would be initially established in scattered and diverse locations, arguments over Twelve Step writings would have to be settled using locally-available resources—like a dictionary. Do I have any proof that Bill or any AA founder chose words by looking up their meaning in Webster's 1934 Dictionary? I do not. My speculations are just that. Your guess is as good as mine.

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