Monday, August 30, 2004

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.]


At 8/31/2004 11:06:00 AM,

Good post. I don't have other examples to add, just a comment that this phenomenon is not unique to Mormonism. In linguistics, this is known as "folk etymology" and often yields interesting and humorous results.

At 8/31/2004 01:40:00 PM,

One of my favorites is "Helpmeet" (or "helpmate", as some say). This obviously comes from the passage in Genesis where God promises Adam he will create a "help meet" for him ("meet" as in sufficient, adequate, appropriate for the situation). Somewhere along the Mormon etymological line, however, the two words became one word that meant "spouse" (specifically wife). Since this seems to be the word of choice in fast and testimony meetings, I thought I'd do us all a favor and make something clear. Helpmeet--NOT A REAL WORD! It's merely an idiom and a bad one at that as it tends to conjure rather derogatory images of quiet, scrapbooking, barefoot in the kitchen-type wives. Sigh. It's too bad the people that participate in this abuse of the language are not readers of our blog.

At 8/31/2004 01:52:00 PM,

Great post Jason-

I know a certain Italian man of Jewish decent who I thought was a bit nuts for telling me that "Mormon" meant, as you wrote, "piu bene" (more good). I looked it up and sure enough Joseph Smith taught the same thing. And though he was somewhat of a linguist, (hebrew, german and greek) I doubt the actual person Mormon, or the place he was name after had anything to do with that interpretation. Aware of the meaning of the Egyptian "mon," I think Joseph Smith just gave an off the cuff devotional definition of the word, not intending it to be the original meaning. But you never know, he was as deep as they come.

I heard the Mormon St. Jerome himself, Hugh Nibley, reference "At-one-ment" as being based in "good-old english." Though I wonder if it was orignially a religious term, or if it was invented to describe something that is next to impossible to describe.

"Woe" isn't it "Woah" for horses?? Just be glad that this Mormon equivalent of professional clergy doesn't have much influence outside of Utah. I just wish that people would recognize their purpose for what it is: devotional and NOT academic.

What bug me worse than these interpolations are the photocopied devotional stories, anomously written, that members, and especially missionaries, are so fond of. Like the railroad bridge is THAT doctrinal. Or even better sayings like "I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it." Can someone please show me where and when Jesus said that, and if not, why everyone seems to say he did??

At 8/31/2004 03:57:00 PM,

re: the blurry photocopies of "spiritual thoughts" (which I think is a pejoration of the word *thought*), my mom had 4 missionaries over for dinner while I was at home for the summer. One missionary, after his initial suspicious of my fidelity [Footnote 1.] asked me where I served my mission. Italy. The Rome Mission. His eyes widened, and I braced myself for for the usual comments about it being hard; baptizing the pope (or the nemesis of Mormonism, Cardinal Ratzinger!); good food; old crap; who they know who went to Italy and so on. No, no. Not this elder. He exclaimed, "I bet you got all kinds of new thoughts while you were over there, right?" That sent me into mental torment, as if he saw the Italian peninsula as a Urim and Thummim for "new thoughts" that would be beamed into my N. American mind. I asked, "What?" and he replied "SPIRITUAL THOUGHTS!" and greedily asked if I had my collection of spiritual thoughts that I shared when visiting people. I tried to be really nice, and just responded to his utter disappointment, "Actually, I mostly taught from the scriptures."

1. A footnote, if I may. Everytime I meet the new missionaries in the ward, I get the feeling that they have judged me inactive and bad and unrighteous--until in their spontaneous "BRT" inquisition they stumble on the fact that I am a student at the Faithfulest of Faithful schools: BYU Law. Then they become suspicious about how a person like *me* (probably still at least on some level in their mind, inactive and a religious alien) could or would want to get into a program like *that*. Sometimes I feel like they accept me as sincere, but often they keep a little bit of their initial wariness that I inexplicably inspire.]

At 9/06/2004 12:59:00 AM,

This isn't on etymology, per se, but it is about odd heuristic devices that missionaries seem locked into that more often than not hurt more than they help.

I was teaching a second discussion with a few elders awhile ago, and one of them drew that diagram on the board (you all know it-- the one with the two pits, the first being physical death, the second being spiritual death) and the two atonement-representing bridges that go over the respective chasms and lead to eternal life. By the time that the Elder was done drawing the diagram, investigator was so confused that he thought a person had to physically die and be resurrected first, then spiritually die, and somehow while they were down in the spiritual pit of spiritual death, reach up for faith repentance, baptism and the gift of the holy ghost. He expressed his confusion with the diagram to the Elder; but the Elder was so locked into the diagram that he couldn't see where the investigator's confusion lay. I held my tongue for a moment. The elder looked at his companion. His companion shook his head, equally baffled-- "I'm just not sure what you're asking..." he answered. I stepped in, explained the confusion, resolved it, and the discussion went on.

This isn't to rip on a couple of young missionaries. Just to make the comment (along the lines Jason's original post) on the danger of confusing signifiers and signifieds-- on becoming over-reliant on metaphors, linguistic tricks, little stories, or heuristic devices to teach that which truly only the Spirit of the Lord can teach. Conversion is living. Testimony must breathe, or, like the rhetoric of so many others who speak without authority, it is only words.

At 9/07/2004 11:32:00 AM,

I found this discussion particularly entertaining, and just want to add a quick note. All the examples that Mr. Knapp provided are, as one user noted, "folk etymology". I provide you with a definition and some insight: Folk etymology: the re-analysis of a an semantically or etymologically unfamiliar--but usually common--word, causing the word to fit within known semantic parameters.

For example, the word muskrat comes from the Algonquian (Native American) word "muscasus", which means "it is red". English speakers adapted "muscasus" into Muskrat, because it sounds somewhat like the word they were hearing, but muskrat made a little more sense because the darned thing looks like a giant rat AND it emits a musky odor.

I think the bottom line is that these seminary teachers, well-meaning missionaries, etc, try to rack their respective brains for ways to make others feel the determination they themselves feel about an eternal principle, that they feel they need to create a dually semantic and mnemonic device to help their interlocutors feel and, more importantly, REMEMBER what they SHOULD BE FEELING every time they hear a certain word.

It's all pretty elementary and teachers should probably stop using such education devices once they stop teaching in Primary.

At 9/12/2004 02:17:00 AM,

According to Nibley (from Approaching Zion), "People are usually surprised to learn that atonement, an accepted theological term, is neither from a Greek nor a Latin word, but is good old English and really does mean, when we write it out, at-one-ment, denoting both a state of being "at one" with another and the process by which that end is achieved. The word atonement appears only once in the New Testament (Romans 5:11 in the King James Version), and in the Revised Standard Version it does not appear at all, since the new translation prefers the more familiar word "reconciliation." Paul has just told us that the Lord "sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on High," so reconciliation is a very good word for atonement there, since it means literally to be seated again with someone (re-con-silio)—so that atonement is to be reunited with God."

Sounds good to me.

At 9/13/2004 07:44:00 PM,

I agree, Anonymous. I hope it was clear that on my original "pop-quiz" that the vignette about "At-one-ment" was labelled "true" without explanation.

I think that the true significance of a word when expressed well can be a strong tool in teaching the Gospel. Nibley's essay (which I think is called) "The Meaning of the Atonement" also appeared in 4 or so parts in the ENSIGN within the last 20 years. BYU professor of Linguistics Melvin Luthy calls the inaccurate etymologies in Mormonism "Fanciful etymology" instead of "Folk etymologies" (maybe to set the particularly LDS ones apart from the Muskrat and Hang Nail variety. A problem I see with the "fanciful etymologies" that I have heard (like "Be-attitudes") is that they make me skeptical about the possibility that other etymologies (especially those in coming from English) are true.




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