The Problem with Words

You all will probably think I am weird.

But for some upcoming blog posts, I plan on blogging some thoughts every now and then about the problem with words.

Over the past year or so, it occurred to me that many Christians get hung up on how we use certain words, in theological discussion. A lot of strife between believers is due to not having a basic agreement on terminology, when we engage in important discussions about the Bible.

This is not uniquely a Christian problem. It is a problem with the whole human race. Somewhere, I am sure that our sinfulness figures into the equation. But Christians are especially susceptible to the problem because we look to a text, namely “the Bible,” as our authority. So, when you deal with a text, you are dealing with words, and often, words gets lost in translation, and in our communication with other believers.

I confess, that I am not always good at it myself.

When confusion results, because of our failure to grasp a common vocabulary, this is not good for people who believe that God has revealed Himself through the pages of Scripture. So, I decided to read some of the writings of “The Inklings,” that 20th century British braintrust, that met together weekly in a pub, to discuss the really big things in life, to give me some help.

In particular, I checked out C.S. Lewis’ Studies in Words, and Owen Barfield’s History in English Words. Both Lewis and Barfield were experts in philology, or the study of language. Barfield’s theology is a bit strange, compared to Lewis’ “mere Christianity,” but both writers give us tremendous insight into some of the challenges in how language evolves over time, and how we end up using words, in our communication.

For a quick example, Owen Barfield (p.66) writes about a certain Sir John Cheke, a 16th English Reformer, who worked on an English translation of the Book of Matthew. For about a thousand years prior to Cheke, the only readily available translation of the Bible in England was St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. But like more well-known Reformers, such as William Tyndale, Cheke believed that the Bible should be accessible in the mother tongue of his native England, in a language that everyone could read, as the average person understood very little of Latin.

But Cheke was very creative in his English translation of Matthew, looking for uniquely English words, or closely English-like words, to translate certain terms, instead of trying to borrow from Latin.  The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible translates Matthew 4:24 like this:

And his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatick, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them.

Notice how the KJV translators used the word “lunatick” to describe someone who was probably mentally ill. Cheke thought “lunatick,” or our more modern, “lunatic,” to be too Latinized. So, he came up with his own word, derived from the traditional English word, for that brightest object in the nighttime sky, “moond.”

Have you ever thought of a crazy person as being “moond?”  No, I did not think so. Neither did I.

The etymology for the word, luna, the root for lunatic, is derived from an old Latin name for the “goddess of the moon.” Perhaps Cheke believed that the pagan or occultic ideas associated with the word lunatic were inappropriate for use in the Bible, whereas the traditional English moon, could be slightly altered to signify the same idea, with less pagan connotations. I do not know, but it is fascinating to think about.

As an aside, this helps me to better understand why some Christians refuse to use the word “Easter” to speak of Christ’s Resurrection, claiming that the concept of Easter is rooted in pagan mythology.

As a further aside, Barfield notes (p. 65,) that John Wycliffe, the 14th century translator of the Bible into English, used the English-sounding word againrising to translate the Latin word resurrectio, as well as the English-sounding undeadliness to translate the Latin word immortalitas.

I often wonder what the English-speaking world would be like if Wycliffe’s translation of these words would have won out over the traditional Latin transliterations into English.

Anyway, back to Sir John Cheke….

Here are a few more examples of Cheke’s attempt to de-Latinize the Bible:

  • Instead of the Latin word centurion, as in a “Roman centurion,” Cheke opted for the word hundreder.
  • Instead of the Latin word apostle, Cheke chose the word frosent.  This strange word frosent, was derived from a short phrase “from-sent,” since an apostle basically means someone who is sent out by someone else; as in when Jesus sends out the twelve apostles, in Matthew 10.
  • Instead of the Latin word crucified, Cheke translated that as crossed.
  • Instead of the Latin word proselyte, Cheke translated that as freshman.

That all sounds really quirky to us today, for the simple reason that Cheke’s translation of the Book of Matthew never really caught on with 16th century English readers.

Which is why most people have never heard of Sir John Cheke.

Which is why we find more Latinized words, even in some of our more modern translations still today, like centurion, apostle, crucified, proselyte, …. and lunatic.

Words are funny things, are they not?

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Other posts in this series:

How Modernity Influenced the Evolution of English Words

How Christians Change Words


Conservative and Liberal as Christian Labels

Concluding Thoughts on Owen Barfield’s History in English Words

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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