No More Mr. “Nice” Guy

Fresh reflection on old words is why I’m reading Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace. I don’t expect to agree with everything she says, but it is good for me to step out of my tradition and examine the ideas central to my faith from a fresh pair of eyes.

Though I continue to find the book helpful, I’m dismayed that she begins one section like this:

The word “conversion” comes from the Latin for “to turn around.” Thus it denotes….

Whenever one sees such logic in writing or hears it in preaching (and it seems common in both) one’s critical radar should begin beeping wildly. The meaning of a word depends on the context in which an author uses it. It’s etymology might be interesting (“Ah…”), but it is never definitive (“Thus…”). And it at times might be misleading.

It is interesting, for example, that the word ‘nice’ comes from the Latin nescius mediated into English through French and Middle English. It is interesting that in the Latin and Middle English it meant “ignorant, incapable, foolish, stupid”. It is interesting, but you would be justifiably shocked if I punched you for calling me “nice”. And if I tried to justify my action by saying,

The word “nice” comes from the Latin for “ignorant.” Thus it denotes….

you would rightly be mystified that I had so easily misunderstood you.

When we as teachers, writers, or preachers try to prove a point using the etymology of a word, we run into muddy waters. Just because a word I use today in English comes from a word with a certain sense in Latin or Greek or Middle English does not mean that is the sense with which I use it today. My atheist friend will without a doubt say goodbye to me when we part, but I cannot assume that he’s had a sudden conversion (!) and sincerely wishes “God be with ye”.

I’m particularly sensitive to this because I spend so much of my time trying to translate ancient concepts into modern terms. It can be a dicey business to to take biblical language from 2000 years ago and accurately convey its meaning in 21st century English. Biblical interpretation is marred by the dual danger of improperly importing a word’s origins into its New Testament usage, for example, and of importing a modern meaning back into the text which would have been foreign to the original author. Both need to be avoided, and often aren’t.

The sagest advice (of course!) is found in the words of Mortimer Adler whose admonition is to ‘come to terms’ with an author. I wish I had Adler’s How to Read a Book at hand so that I could quote him directly. His point is that we must learn the way an author himself uses particular words and accept the meaning that he embraces. Only THEN will we be in a position to genuinely understand what we are reading or hearing.

Wise advice that if heeded might keep us from getting punched. Or worse.