A World of Words
“I don’t know. Who knows how words are formed?”
-Michael Gary Scott, The Office
How are words formed? Unfortunately, many of us cannot give a much more helpful answer than Dunder Mifflin's Regional Manager.
Words are not magical fairies that have eternally existed or mysterious mists which materialize from nowhere. For the most part language is both temporal and logical. However, by and large, the average English speaker has little to no clue where, why or how our language came into being.
We are missing out. For words are wondrous and marvelous things. After all, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but our only image of the Father is the Word communicated through words in a book.
I’ve always loved words and writing. How could I not? I was named after Chaucer.
Yet my appreciation of etymology (the study of word origin) didn’t emerge until somewhat recently. While taking elementary Greek in seminary, I realized that the dad from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was right. With a little imagination and a little exaggeration, every English word comes from Greek (or Latin).
Just a few verses into the gospel of John I was fascinated by the cognates. All of these connections began to be made in my mind. The Greek arche (beginning) related to archaic, logos (word) to –logy suffixes, theos (God) to theology, zoe (life) to zoology, martyria (witness) to martyr, photos (light) to photography, kosmos (world) to cosmos, and sarx (flesh) to sarcophagus. When I saw that doxa means glory, I better understood what a doxology is. Finding that charis is Greek for grace helped me comprehend charity.
For my birthday that year, I asked for a dictionary of etymology. I’m a nerd. Judge me if you want.
Words are symbols which carry meaning and the more we understand the richness of language, the better we can comprehend the treasures of truths which they communicate.
Imagine a room. Can you see it?
Now imagine that it is a library.
Now it is not a public library, but a private study.
Now it has one wall completely filled with books, most of which are only accessible via a sliding ladder.
Now imagine that it has two large reading chairs in the center and a grand piano in the corner.
If you followed along with the exercise (though I doubt that most actually took the time to imagine along with me), you would have had a gradually emerging picture. The more words that were added, the greater the description and the clearer the picture of the original room. Such it is with Christ. The more we understand the particular words that are ascribed to Him, the better we see His beauty and thus the greater opportunity for the ceiling of our worship to be raised.
There are dangers in anachronistically (chronos is Greek for time) using etymology. In particular, they may fall into the etymological fallacy. Overzealous pastors might preach Romans 1:16 by claiming that God’s power to save is like dynamite. While it is true that the English term “dynamite” and the Greek dynamis are related, we must remember which way the relationship goes. Paul had never heard of dynamite when he wrote Romans. Dynamite is “powerful” (the meaning of dynamis), but that doesn’t mean that all power is like dynamite.
There is also a danger of falling in love with the symbol at the expense of the reality carried by it. When we see more beauty in a sentence than our Savior, we have missed the entire point of the sentence. I confess that is an ongoing struggle as I often find myself delighting in the sound or feel of a phrase rather than the Lord to whom the phrase should point. Let us be logophiles (from logos meaning word and phile meaning love) in a fuller sense as those who love the signs that point to the Son.
Despite the dangers, I think the work of lexical excavation is worth it. There are vast treasures buried within our vocabulary and we have an opportunity to dig deeply and discover beauty. In doing so, we might just find a few linguistic jewels to ponder. So next time you sit down with the Bible (from the Greek biblos meaning book) and a cup of coffee, you just might pull down a dictionary as well. While you are at it, grab that old Roget’s thesaurus (from the Greek thesauros meaning “treasure”) and see what relics and rubies await.