Familiar and Obscure
Posted by Jill Carattini on May 10, 2017
Noah Webster was a crusading editor, essayist, and orator well-acquainted with the soapboxes of the early 1800s. He was deeply troubled at the state of language in America and certain that the current system of instruction would eventually arrest the spread of literacy. Rules for spelling, punctuation, and pronunciation—if at all present in the classroom—were incongruous with everyday spoken language. Many words were spelled in different ways, utilized with different meanings, and pronounced with great disparity—all of which were considered acceptable. “[W]hile this is the case,” Webster warned, “every person will claim a right to pronounce most agreeably to his own fancy, and the language will be exposed to perpetual fluctuation.”(1)
In this mess of word and meaning, Noah Webster set out to write an expanded and comprehensive dictionary of the English language, hoping to standardize American speech, spelling, and comprehension. In order to document the etymology of each word, he learned twenty-six languages and studied in various countries. His dictionary contained seventy thousand words, twelve thousand of which had never appeared in any earlier published dictionary. The project took twenty-six years to complete.
Though he never lived to see even a fraction of the impact, Webster’s influence on the study and reform of language in America was profound. For a nation in want of grammatical consistency, Webster illumined the great substance of words and the import of preserving their meaning and heritage. It is perhaps a light we should more often fear to lose: the meaning of words can be darkened in obscurity even to the point of being lost, though still uttered.
In his work, Simply Christian, N.T. Wright traces the etymology of the name of God and describes a confusion not unlike the muddle that troubled Webster. Wright explains, “[A]ncient Israelite scruples, medieval mistranslation, and fuzzy eighteenth century thinking have combined to make it hard for us today to recapture the vital sense of what a first-century Jew would understand when thinking of YHWH, what an early Christian would be saying when speaking of Jesus or ‘the Lord,’ and how we might now properly reappropriate this whole tradition.”(2)
Yahweh, which is sometimes denoted “YHWH” because Hebrew script only uses consonants, occurs approximately 6800 times in the Old Testament. This name was sacred to the people of Israel, such that they did not even speak it aloud. When they came across the word in writing, they would say “Adonai,” which means, “My Lord.” Because the name was believed to hold the power of the one God, it was only spoken aloud once a year by the high priest within the Holy of Holies of the Temple.
Like many ancient names, Yahweh holds great meaning. But unlike any other name, it is boldly thought best translated, “I am that I am” or “I will be who I will be.” Out of the same tradition of reverence held in Jewish nomenclature, most modern translations render the name of God, “LORD” in all capitals, bringing to mind the four Hebrew consonants that denote the special name given to the people of Israel. Today, wherever the word “Lord” is found in Bible, there is a rich heritage of meaning, though possibly obscured to the point of being lost, while yet uttered. Where contemporary attitudes toward God might persuade us to render a generic and distant being or title, the word itself leaves no room for this vision, for it is actually a proper name. In this rich etymology, in a word, God is LORD. God is who God is; there is no other like the one who has given us this name.
For early Christians, this great substance of words was carried within their approach of Jesus as well. When they referred to Jesus as “Lord” there were several meanings at play, and they rejoiced in the rich particularity. They saw Jesus as Lord in the sense that he is one they sought to obey; he is master and leader. “They have taken my Lord away,” Mary said at the tomb like a child lost. But Christ was also LORD in the sense of the One God who, since the beginning, longs to be known and so gives us his name—in all capitals and with awe. “My Lord and my God!” said Thomas at Christ’s disfigured side. This interplay of etymology stirred within the imaginations of the earliest Christians.
These words cry out for imaginations still. “The word is near you,” writes a disciple who came to see the gift of language. “It is in your mouth and in your heart.”(3) That is, the word of faith, the name of God, the full hope of a Creator who so loves creation that he joins us in the very midst of it and gives us a face with the name: This Jesus is Lord.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Harlow G. Unger, Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998), 46.
(2) N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), 68.
(3) Romans 10:8.