Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: English language

The power of small

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

Thus begins the gospel of John in the Authorized Version. This is one of the most powerful paragraphs in the English language. There are 54 words, 50 of them are words of one syllable.

The wording of this statement can not be improved. There are layers of meaning here that would be submerged if we used longer words, or added adjectives and adverbs.

H. W. Fowler put it this way:

“It is a general rule that the short words are not only handier to use, but more powerful in effect; extra syllables reduce, not increase, vigour. This is especially so in English, where the native words are short, and the long words are foreign. . . . Good English does consist in the main of short words. There are many good reasons, however, against any attempt to avoid a polysyllable if it is the word that will give our meaning best; moreover the occasional polysyllable will have added effect  from being set among short words. What is here deprecated is the tendency among the ignorant to choose, because it is a polysyllable, the word that gives their meaning no better or even worse. Mr. Pecksniff, we are told, was in the frequent habit of using any word that occurred to him as having a good sound, and rounding a sentence well, without much care for its meaning. He still has his followers.”

From love of the long word, page 394, Fowler’s Modern English Usage,Second Edition, © 1965 Oxford University Press.

What on earth does shamefacedness mean?

English is a mongrel language, developed by indiscriminate interbreeding of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Old Norse and French, with lesser contributions from Celtic, Arabic, Greek and other languages. This has created a language with a huge number of words, more than any other language.The grammatical structure puts it in the Low German language group, along with Dutch, Flemish, Frisian, Afrikaans, Plautdietsch and Braid Scots (which has no relationship to Gaelic). But 40% of English words are of French or Latin origin.

The great multitude of words makes it more difficult to write and speak clearly and eloquently in English. Often there are are two or three or five words that mean exactly the same thing. Which one should you choose?

Then there are words that are just plain weird, like shamefacedness. The only place one is apt to run across that word is in 1 Timothy 2:5 where the apostle Paul exhorts Christian women to shamefacedness and sobriety.

No, that word does not mean that Christian women should always be blushing in embrarrassment. The word actually has nothing to do with one’s face. Shamefaced started out in life as shamefast and over time was mispronounced and misspelled until the mistake became the standard. The fast part of the word came from the idea of being held fast, thus the original meaning was to be held back by shame. Makes a little more sense, doesn’t it?

The word used in French translations makes even more sense. In that language the apostle exhorts Christian women to pudeur et modestie. Modestie needs no introduction, it is the source of our English word modesty. Pudeur is the sense of embarrassment that a person experiences in hearing about or witnessing nudity or things of a sexual nature. Or, to put it another way, embarrassment before that which is forbidden by her sense of dignity.

What Paul is really trying to say is that Christian women should have a sense of decency and modesty.


Our Sunday School lesson yesterday was on covetousness, a word that some of us don’t know how to pronounce and none of us know how to define.

Covetousness seems quite long enough at four syllables, but some in our circles think it needs a fifth. They pronounce it cov et you us ness. That’s ridiculous, four syllables are quite enough to get the job done.  In fact, we might be better off if English had stuck with the French original: convoitise. That has only three syllables.

As for the meaning, this seems to be a slippery word, difficult to get a grip on. I looked it up in several dictionaries and didn’t find them helpful. Hence, after some meditation on the subject, I hereby propose two definitions of my own, which I think cover the gamut of what we mean to say when we use the word.

Covetousness: 1. the desire for more than what is good for us; 2. the desire for something that would lift us above the common run of people of our acquaintance.

There you have my contribution to the demystification (six syllables!)of the English language. Feel free to submit your own definitions, or to shoot mine down if you feel that is what is needed.

John Wycliffe, as seen by Geoffrey Chaucer

In 1367, when John Wycliffe taught at Canterbury Hall, Oxford, one of his students was Geoffrey Chaucer.  These two men had a great influence on the development of the English language.   In later years, John Wycliffe produced the first translation of the Bible into the English language, and Chaucer produced the first literary work in English, the Canterbury Tales. The following verses are the portion of the Canterbury Tales where Chaucer speaks of his mentor. This is very old English, and you might need to pause a moment here and there to get the meaning.

A good man was there of religioun,
And was a poure Persounn of a toun,             (poor parson)
But riche he was of hooly thoght and werk.
He was also a lerned man, a clerk                 (cleric)
That Cristes gospel trewly wolde preche;
His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.
Benyne he was, and wonder diligent,
And in adversity ful pacient,
And such he was ypreved ofte sithes. . .

Wyde was his parisshe, and houses fer asunder,
But he ne lefte nat, for reyn ne thonder,
In sicknesse nor in meschiefe, to visite
The ferreste in his parish, much and lite,
Upon his feet, and in his hand a staf.
The noble ensample to his sheep he yaf. . .

He was a shepherde and noght a mercenarie,
And though he hooly were and vertuous,
He was to sinful men nat despitous,
Ne of his speche daungerous ne digne,
But hin is techying discreet and benygne.
To drawen folk to hevene by fairnesse,
By good ensample, was his bisynesse. . .

A bettere prest I trowe that nowthere noon ys.
He waited after no pompe and reverence,
Ne maked him a spiced conscience,
But Cristes loore, and his apostles twelve,
He taught, and first he folwed it  hymselve.

Saskatchewan speak

We speak normal Canadian English here in Saskatchewan — for the most part. There are, however, a few words familiar to residents of this province, that are largely unknown elsewhere. A survey released a few days ago checked on how familiar same of these words are to Saskatchewanians.

We all know what a bunnyhug is — 96% of us anyway. It is a hooded sweatshirt, commonly called a hoodie in many other places. No one seems to know how the word originated but we all know what it is.

86% of us know that gibbled means broken or dysfunctional. This word appears to have originated 50 years ago among the employees of the poultry processing plant in Wynyard, derived from giblets.

Vi-Co was recognized by 77%, not so much by those under 35, but probably everyone over that age. Vi-Co used to be the best known brand of chocolate milk in this province and became almost a generic term for chocolate milk. That brand has not been produced for years.

76% know that matrimonial cake is a dessert which largely consists of mashed dates between layers of oatmeal, with some margarine, flour and brown sugar thrown in for good measure. It is delicious, not complicated to make, keeps well, and at one time was the standard dessert at wedding receptions for people of just about all ethnic and denominational persuasions.

73% recognized gotch (not gotcha) as another word for underwear.  I wasn’t one of them. Apparently it is of Ukrainian origin. People of Ukrainian descent were plentiful among the homesteaders 100 years ago, and more have been coming in recent years.

I will let this suffice as a brief introduction to Saskatchewan’s rich cultural heritage.

Verily, verily

The English of the AV, or KJV, translation was not the same as the English commonly spoken 400 years ago. The words were carefully selected to first of all be a true representation of the text in the original languages and secondly, to convey that truth in simple words arranged to have the greatest imapct on the mind and memory when read aloud.

No other translation has the same adhesive quality. No other tranlation lends itself so readily to memorisation. No other translation uses so many one syllable words, yet arranges them in such a powerful poetic form.

American writer Jon M Sweeney pays tribute to this quality of the KJV in his book, Verliy, Verily. The KJV — 400 years of influence and beauty. (© 2011 by Jon Sweeney, published by Zondervan) Here are a few excerpts from the conclusion of the book:

“The English that we speak at work or the dinner table is often the same English we speak at church. It wasn’t always so, however. The KJV offers a language that is slightly outside of everyday experience, which expands our capacity to contemplate, see, and know God. Before the modern era . . . Christian English-speakers were basically bilingual — everyday Englsh and KJV English existed side by side.

“Many Christians today feel vaguely homesick, like people in exile. . . . We long to hear the rhythms of the King James Bible once again, the rhythms that call us back to a place where we can stand in the dark beneath the canopy of the heavens and gaze into the unknown.

“When this happens — when we begin to discover or rediscover the King James Bible — our hearts and minds and imagination begin to expand. I think back to more than a year ago when I decided to begin readi9ng from page 1 in my newly purchased KJV. . . .

“Above all, I began to wonder and imagine in the words of the Bible once again. I found myself hearing God’s voice, and hearing it in different ways and in new places.

“May you do the same.”


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