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Stories That Words Tell Us By Elizabeth O'Neill Characters: 9187

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

A great English historian, writing of the sixteenth century, once said, "The English people became the people of a book." The book he meant was, of course, the Bible. When England became Protestant the people found a new interest in the Bible. In Catholic times educated people, like priests, had read the Bible chiefly in Latin, though the New Testament had been translated into English. But most of the people could not even read. They knew the Bible stories only from the sermons and teaching of the priests, and from the great number of statues of Biblical kings and prophets which covered the beautiful churches of the Middle Ages.

But the new Protestant teachers were much more enthusiastic about the Bible. Many of them found the whole of their religion in its pages, and were constantly quoting texts of Scripture. New translations of the New Testament were made, and at last, in 1611, the wonderful translation of the whole Bible known as the "Authorised Version," because it was the translation ordered and approved by the Government, was published. About the same time a translation into English was made for Catholics, and this was hardly less beautiful. It is known as the "Douai Bible" because it was published at Douai by Catholics who had fled from England.

From that time the Bible has been the book which English people have read most, and it has had an immense influence on the English language.

Even in the Middle Ages the Bible had given many new words to the language. Names of Eastern animals, trees, and plants, etc., like lion, camel, cedar, palm, myrrh, hyssop, gem, are examples of new words learned from the Bible at this time.

But the translations of the Bible in the Reformation period had a much greater effect than this. Many words which were already dying out were used by the translators, and so kept their place in the English language. Examples of such words are apparel and raiment for "clothes." These words are not used so often as the more ordinary word clothes even now, but it is quite probable that they would have passed out of use altogether if the translators of the Bible had not saved them.

There are many words of this sort which were saved in this way, but they are chiefly used in poetry and "fine" writing. We do not speak of the "firmament" in an ordinary way; but this word, taken from the first chapter of the Bible, is still used as a more poetical name for sky.

But the translators of the Bible must also be put among the makers of new English words. Sometimes the translator could not find what he considered a satisfactory word to express the meaning of the Greek word he wished to translate. He, therefore, made a new word, or put two old words together to express exactly what he thought the Greek word meant. The word beautiful may not have been actually invented by the translator, William Tyndale, but it is not found in any book earlier than his translation of the New Testament. It seems a very natural and necessary word to us now. It was Tyndale who first used the words peacemaker and scapegoat and the compound word long-suffering; and another famous translator, Miles Coverdale, who invented the expressions loving-kindness and tender mercy.

But the great effect which the Bible has had on the English language is not in the preserving of old words and the making of new. Its chief effect has been in the way many of its expressions and phrases have passed into everyday use, so that people often use Biblical phrases without even knowing that they are doing so, just as we saw was the case with many phrases taken from Shakespeare's works.

Every one knows the expression to cast pearls before swine, and its meaning, "to give good things to people who are too ignorant to appreciate them." This expression, taken from the Gospel of St. Matthew, has now become an ordinary English expression. The same is the case with the expression, the eleventh hour, meaning "just in time." But perhaps not every one who uses it remembers that it comes from the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard, though, of course, most people would.

Other common Biblical expressions are, a labour of love, to hope against hope, the shadow of death, and so on. When a child is described as the Benjamin of the family, we know that this means the youngest and best loved, because the story of Jacob's love for Benjamin is familiar to every one. Again, when a person is described as a Pharisee no one needs to have a description of his qualities, for every one knows the story of the Pharisee and the Publican.

The B

ible is, of course, full of the most poetical ideas and the most vivid language, and the fact that this language has become the everyday speech of Englishmen has been most important in the development of the English language. Without the Bible, which is full of the richness and colour of Eastern things and early peoples, the English language might have been much duller and less expressive.

But the religious writers of the Reformation period gave us another kind of word besides those found in the translations of the Bible. Many of these writers thought it was their duty to abuse the people who did not agree with them on the subject of religion. Tyndale himself, who invented such beautiful words in his translations, was the first to use the word dunce. He called the Catholics by this name, which he made out of the name of a philosopher of the Middle Ages called Duns Scotus. The Protestants despised the Catholic or scholastic philosophy. But Duns Scotus was quite a clever man in his day, and it is curious that his name should have given us the word dunce, which became quite a common word as time went on.

Other new words which the Protestants used against the Catholics were Romish, Romanist (which Luther had used, but which Coverdale was the first to use in English), popery, popishness, papistical, monkish, all of which are still used to-day, and still have an anti-Catholic meaning. It was then that Rome was first described as Babylon, the meaning of the Protestants being that the city was as wicked as ancient Babylon, the name of which is used as a type of all wickedness in the Apocalypse, and these writers often used the words Babylonian and Babylonish instead of Roman. The name Scarlet Woman, also taken from the Apocalypse, was also often used to describe the Catholic Church.

The expression Roman Catholic, to which no one objects, was invented later, at the time that it was thought that Charles I. was going to marry a Spanish princess, and, of course, a Catholic. It was invented as being more polite than the terms by which the Protestants had so often abused the Catholics, and it has been used ever since.

Other new words came from the breaking up of Protestantism into different sects. Puritan was the name given to those who wished to "purify" the Protestant religion from all the old ceremonies of Catholicism. The Calvinists (or followers of the French reformer, John Calvin) believed that souls were "predestined" to go to heaven or to be lost. The people who were predestined to be lost they described as reprobate, and this word we still use, but with a different meaning. A reprobate nowadays is a person who is looked upon as hopelessly bad, and the word is also sometimes used jokingly.

The name Protestant itself is interesting. It was first used to describe the Lutherans, who "protested" against, and would not agree with, the decisions made by the Emperor Charles V. on the subject of religion.

The names of the different forms of Protestantism are often very interesting, and were, of course, new words invented to describe the different forms of belief. The first great division was between the Lutherans and the Calvinists. The meaning of these names is plain. They were merely the followers of Martin Luther and John Calvin.

But later on there were many divisions, such as the Baptists, who were so called because they thought that people should not be baptized until they were grown up. They also administered the sacrament in a different way from most other Churches, the person baptized being dipped in the water. At one time these people were called Anabaptists, ana being the Greek word for "again." But this was supposed to be a term of abuse similar to those showered on the Roman Catholics, and in time it died out.

Then there were the Independents, who were so called because they believed that each congregation should be independent of every other.

Perhaps the most peculiar name applied to one of the many sects in the England of the seventeenth century was that of the Quakers. This, too, was a name of abuse at first; but the "Society of Friends," to whom it was applied, came sometimes to use it themselves. They were a people who believed in great simplicity of life and manners and dress, and had no priests. At their religious meetings silence was kept until some one was moved to speak. The name was taken from the text, "quaking at the word of the Lord."

The names chosen by religious leaders, and those applied to the sects by their enemies, can teach us a great deal of history.

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