Etymology, Instructional Falsehood, and the Gospel
This one has been simmering inside me for years. First a few vignettes, and to make it fun, I will give you my impression of the literal etymological veracity of these claims.
1. My Sunday School teacher when I was 12 taught us that the "Beatitudes" were called such because they are "attitudes" that we should "be" or, better, adopt in our lives.
2. A local priesthood leader in a talk explained that the word Atonement means to bring separate people or things "at one"--just like Jesus will bring us, as lost sheep, to unity with God.
3. A Sunday School teacher at BYU yesterday in my student Singles Ward first admitted to have taken the religion class meant to prepare students for a career in CES Seminary Teaching, then explained that the noun "woe"--as in "endless woe and torment"--means in the salvific sense exactly what it means to a horse. I.e., when you say "woe" to a horse [and, perhaps coincidentally, yank on the reins] "the horse stops progressing". So the word theological definition of the word "woe" is stoppage of progression.
4. Someone has taught that the word "Mormon" comes from the a combination of the English word "more" [i.e. plus; piu`; mas; etc] and the Egyptian word "mon" meaning good. Therefore, the word Mormon means " more good."
I will put my own true-false (etymologically-based, NOT theologically-based) answers at the end in smaller type, if all goes well.
Before I pontificate, I call upon bloggers, one and all, to enlarge the stakes of my lay-theologian etymology database. I am not saying run to the OED and look up what the word for prophet means in Hebrew or scan the Bible Dictionary: What have you heard in sunday school class, seminary, institute of religion classes, quorum or Female Relief Society meetings, Home teaching visits, etc. Give me your idea of the historical truth, not the (usually tame) theological meaning supported by the (possibly shady) historical truth.
I am intrigued to the point of intellectual obsession with this method of gospel teaching. Why do non-linguists (and I admit that I am only an amatuer in this field, though I had basic training in my undergrad education) feel that a dabbling in etymology, or "fanciful etymology" as the false but not theologically-pernicious word history has been called, will result in convincing gospel proof?
Can we be illuminated in a real way by these kind of manufactured insights about key words in our religion?
Also, there is the question of language. In Italian, the word LDS use for atonement is espiazione, which is phonetically modified from the latin "expiatio" the very direct English transliteration of which is "expiation" as used by Talmage occasionally. Expiation means more "extinguishing guilt; purging imperfections" than "unifying" making two entities "at one." So as a North American LDS, does our atonement only mean to make at one, unless we know the obscure word expiation, then we understand that our guilt is also purged. I don't think so. The word is a symbol for the theological construct that hopefully grows and expands with our understanding the concept of what Christ has done for us. We use words to say in few syllables what would otherwise require more explanation that time permits and attention allows.
One last, perhaps unrelated but very important story: I had a dream one night that an anonymous acquaitance began explaining the gospel to me in uninstructive metaphor. These trite tropes did not help me to understand gospel principles or increase my testimony; they just annoyed me. Finally, after what seemed like unbearable frustration, I exclaimed with undreamlike clarity and surprising politeness, "Thank you for your explanation, but I *am* capable of abstract thought." I don't think I am the only one with that capacity, and I wonder about the whens, whys, and hows of gospel etymology.
[ANSWERS: 1 false; 2 true; 3 false (I think but have not researched, and may prove true); 4 false, and the someone was originally Joseph Smith, and later also Gordon B. Hinkley though I think Joseph didn't present it as an etymological fact, but rather a social aspiration.]