aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

On church words

The Church uses a large, and highly specialized, vocabulary to talk about God and spiritual things. Many religious acts and objects have names that are used for nothing else in modern English. This puts a burden on newcomers/seekers: in order to understand and experience what we're talking about, they have to master the church lingo.

A lot of people think that we can re-label things and make it easier for seekers to become believers, and then disciples. But all crafts, hobbies, and pastimes have specialized vocabularies. Interest carries one on, and by participation and context one eventually learns to use the words that carry particular meaning for the thing one has become involved in.

Still, choosing the right word for the right thing is the translator's task, and where no obvious candidate presents itself, sometimes you've just got to coin a new word or phrase. When John Wycliffe translated the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into the English of his day, he came up with new words for some things; for others, he simply took a Latin form and "englished" it. In Reading Acts 17 today in Wycliffe's translation, I find this said of Paul at Athens: for he telde to hem Jhesu, and the ayenrisyng. That is, "for he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection."

Now, resurrection is very much a "church word." People rarely talk about resurrection in other contexts; meanwhile, in Christian teaching, resurrection refers first, to the rising of Jesus from the dead, and second, to the "blessed hope" of the General Resurrection on the Last Day. And neither of these things can be understood without some explanation; the word by itself doesn't help much.

In Wycliffe's day, "resurrection" had not yet become the standard English word for this event and doctrine. It came into Middle English from Old French and ultimately from Latin. But "resurrection" is just Late Latin resurrectio "englished" by adding an 'n' to make a '-tion' word. It assumes you already know what the word means, as a "church word."

But the word Wycliffe uses is ayenrisyng. That first 'y' there should be a yogh, which would make it aȝenrisyng, ModE "again-rising." This is, on its face, a much more easily understood word in English than the latinate "resurrection." So, why did "resurrection" catch on and become the word used in subsequent translations and in theology, while aȝenrisyng fell out of favor?

Nobody knows. Words are floated by authors and translators. Sometimes, they reach for greater dignity, using grand words of Latin or Greek origin. Sometimes, they go for the homely and easily understood. But once a word has become accepted and fixed in usage, it tends to become unchangeable. Too many other writers have used it, argued over it, added cautionary words or explanations to it. So "church words" tend to stay in place until they become so fossilized that nobody understands them without much instruction, at which point the field may become open for new words to replace them.

But I still think, "again-rising" sounds easier to understand than "resurrection," and I give ol' Wycliffe points for trying to reach his audience.

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