NIV vocabulary

The NIV has updated the vocabulary of older English Bible versions a great deal. Over the years the CBT has attempted to strike a balance between using current English but not English that is so colloquial that it would not sound “reverent”.  It has been part of the ethos (not a colloquialism!) of the NIV that it have an elevated, stately sound that would be suitable for worship, including liturgical worship.

Yet some of the vocabulary in the NIV is difficult for the proverbial “man in the street”. Some of its words are unfamiliar to many, perhaps most,  native English speakers. The following website, which prefers the KJV to the NIV, compares vocabulary of these two versions:

A blog post yesterday criticizes the NIV and refers to this list. I do not agree with very much of the blog post, but I do think that we should all listen with humility to criticism, regardless of who gives it. Often we can profit from some parts of criticism.

The following words in the NIV, excerpted from the list in the blog post, are not in my most active vocabulary. Some of them I can understand, but would prefer a more commonly used equivalent. Some of them I do not understand at all:

abutted, adder, algum, ardent, armlets, astir, battlements, behemoth, belial, betrothed, bier, blighted, booty, brayed, breaching, calamus, capital (not a city), carnelian, carrion, chrysolite, citron, clefts, cohorts, colonnades, coney, conjure,
convocations, cors, dandled, dappled, debauchery, derides, despoil, dispossess, disrepute, dissipation, distill, dissuade, divination, dragnet, dropsy, duplicity,
emasculate, emission, entreaty, ephod, epicurean, estal, fettered, filigree, fomenting, forded, fowler, gadfly, galled, gauntness, gecko, goiim, hearld, henna, homers, hoopoe, ignoble, insolence, invoked, jambs, jowls, leviathan, libations, magi, manifold, mattocks, mina, mother-of-pearl, mustering, myrtles, naught,
odious, offal, omer, oracles, overweening, parapet, parchments, pavilion, peals (noun, not the verb), perjurers, pestilence, pinions, phylacteries, porphyry, portent, potsherd, proconsul, poultice, Praetorium, profligate, ramparts, rabble, rawboned, relish (not for hotdogs), rend, reposes, reputed, retinue, retorted, roebucks, rue, sachet, satraps, sated, shipwrights, siegeworks, sistrums, sledges, smelted, soothsayer, pelt, stadia, tamarisk, tanner, tetrarch, terebinth, thresher, throes, tresses, unscathed, usury, vassal, vaunts, verdant, vexed, wadi, wanton, winnowing.

Your mileage will vary, of course. Some readers of this blog have a much larger vocabulary than others.

As always, some will say that we should use the Bible to teach a larger vocabulary to people. Others, like myself, prefer that Bible translations use a vocabulary that is understood by a wide cross-section of native speakers, without limiting the vocabulary so much that it feels “dumbed down.”

How do you react to the less commonly used vocabulary of the NIV? Do the occasional rare or obscure words detract from the English of the NIV, which is, overall, more current than older English Bible versions?

31 thoughts on “NIV vocabulary

  1. David Zook says:

    I never mind words that I don’t understand its meaning. I just look them up.

    I have found in small groups having words people don’t understand really spurs great conversations and points. propitiation is one of those words…I don’t believe the NIV uses that word, but it is a great word.

  2. Doug says:

    Surely the blogposter jests. “Promiscuity” is certainly easier to understand than “whoredoms”. Some of the words on the NIV side are confusing and I wonder what they are, but likewise to a greater extent, the KJV side is even more incomprehensible to me, and I grew up with it. Even more, I think that the NIV words show a different shade of meaning and have attempted provide a more accurate rendition of the Bible than was possible with the KJV. In fact, I think most translations have tried to do this and that is why “modern” translations sell very well.

  3. Jason A. Staples says:

    Part of the problem with these sorts of lists is that they vary depending on the region and dialect of English. Brits have their own idiom that differs from their English-speaking neighbors “across the pond,” (e.g. ordering “chips” in the UK and the USA won’t produce the same result), while many words common in the southern states of the USA won’t be as well known in other regions. That’s a basic problem of translation.

    And on another note, I’m a strong proponent of at least one of the words on that list: “booty” is the only word that retains the (I think necessary) double entendre, indicating that the “spoils” included women as well as gold, weapons, etc. Plus, it definitely keeps a room alive when teaching on a passage that includes the word “booty.”

  4. Jason A. Staples says:

    Doug, I’m not sure that “promiscuity” is easier than “whoredoms” in today’s society given the prevalence of the word “whore” in the vocabulary of the under-30 demographic in the USA. Frankly, it might be the reverse.

  5. J. K. Gayle says:

    It’s strange to see the words in isolation from context. Tolerance for a larger vocabulary, I think, occurs for any of us when there is context, syntax, and grammar. There’s even what some linguists call the “phonological loop” or that short term memory of sounds. How a word is placed in a sentence (and in a paragraph perhaps) affects how one “hears” it (and certainly pronounces it aloud) when reading.

    Wayne, I love the contrasts you point us to in the first site you link to – the contrasts between word choices of NIV and of KJV, and the bible verse context given there.

    Why do you think the second site you link to ignores several words listed in the first site you link to? (These following words are present in the first list but not the second: abasement, aghast, annotations, bewilderment, blunted, blustering, brooches, brood, charioteers, commemorate, cooing, dejected, deluded, denarius, desecrate, detachment, disheartened, disillusionment, drachmas, elation, embedded, embitter, embodiment, emphatically, encouragingly, engulf, enrollment, enveloped, exasperate, exterminate, exult, famished, fattened, faultfinders, fawns, fellowman, festival, festive, fieldstones, filigree, fishnets, flank, fleeting, flinging, flogged, floodgates, fluttering, forevermore, frolic, fruitage, gaiety, gateway, glancing, glint, glistcning, gloom, glutted, goblet, grapevine, Hades, headwaters, horde, ibex, imperishable, impetuous, improvise, incited, indestructible, indispensable, infamy, innumerable, insolent, jeered, kingship, lifeboat, mainstay, marauders, marshaled, mattocks, maxiums, melodious, memorandum, nationality, nightfall, noonday, nuggets, nurtured, oarsmen, obscenity, officiate, opportune, ore, overawed, piled, portico, prefects, reeked, repointing, resound, resplendent, reveled, revelry, revening, sheathed, simplehearted, squall, stag, suckling, tempest, thong, thornbush, thundercloud, timidity, tranquillity, transplanted, tumult, tyranny, underlings, vent, vestments, waylaid, waywardness, weakling, wily, windstorm, wrenched, yearling)

  6. Peter Kirk says:

    Some of these words are proper nouns (e.g. “Belial” is capitalised in its only occurrence in NIV) or the proper English names of animals or plants, or gemstones or architectural features. Surely it would be wrong to replace these with familiar, but inaccurate or over-generic, words. Others e.g. “distill”, “emission”, strike me, as a British English speaker, as so ordinary that I can’t imagine anyone not understanding them, but then that could be a dialect issue. I hope the CBT reconsiders words like these, but I would expect many of them to survive.

  7. Wayne Leman says:

    Doug wrote:

    Surely the blogposter jests.

    No, I didn’t jest at all, Doug. I do understand the word “promiscuity” just fine. But please note all the ways that I nuanced my shades of understanding of words in the list. It’s not a binary matter of whether I do or do not understand these words, just as it is not for many other people. Language usage is complex, and comments here are indicating elements of that complexity, which can include dialect, educational level, empathy for the masses, etc.

  8. Wayne Leman says:

    Please folks, let’s avoid the personal jabs in Comments and try to be as professional and understanding as possible (see comment guidelines in the upper right of the blog). We want this blog to be a place where we learn together, not where we put people down. We all vary in our vocabularies. We vary in our language preferences for Bibles. And both are just fine. But putting people down for where they are at is not fine. It’s not part of open-minded learning.

  9. Joel says:

    I think there are three categories:

    1. Using the right technical word when the original is technical. I think this is always a good idea. For example, if the point really is “pinions” and not more generally feathers (is it?), then go with “pinions.” If the material was really mother-of-pearl, call it that. There really is such a thing as a “parapet,” and if you don’t know what it is, it’s hard to understand Deut. 22:8.

    2. Using a rare word even though a better common one exists. I think just is just bad translation. For example, “libations” instead of “drinks” is just confusing. If the point was just feathers, “pinions” is needlessly obtuse. On the other hand, at least people will know when they don’t understand the translation.

    3. This is really a sub-case of (2): Using a rare word that has a different common meaning, for example “conjure” in Isiah 47:11 (unless the translators think it really has something to do with magic?), which leads people to think they’ve understood the text when really they haven’t. “Pavilion” in Job and in Psalms is similar.

    So I think that the question is not, “how difficult should the language be?” but rather, “when have we used the right word?”

  10. Wayne Leman says:

    Kurk asked:

    Why do you think the second site you link to ignores several words listed in the first site you link to?

    I don’t know, Kurk. I’m so busy now as my wife and I are in Oregon taking our turn visiting her ailing father in the nursing home that I didn’t even look for differences between the two lists.

  11. J. K. Gayle says:

    Thanks Wayne. I really like how Dr. Laurence M. Vance (with the first list) compares and contrasts.

    All the best to you and your wife as you visit with her father! Our prayers are with you for strength and sweetness in the moments. Those who wait upon the Lord…

  12. Doug says:

    I apologize for letting my emotions cloud my previous post. My point was that language changes and while I believe one word is correct, another may be better than another word. Hence, we have different translations, such as the NCV, NIV, NASB, etc.

    I hope your time with your father goes well.

  13. Wayne Leman says:

    Thanks, Doug. Your point is an important one. And I completely agree with you that “promiscuity” is a more appropriate word to use for current speakers of English than “whoredoms” (which I have never heard in my life).

    My father-in-law had to be transported to the E.R. tonight. Diagnosis: swine flu. We are thankful it was diagnosed before his symptoms got even worse. My wife and I now need to watch for symptoms in ourselves since we have been exposed to him.

  14. demas says:

    I may not know the meaning of the word ‘vassal’, but I only have to look it up to get a useful definition. If the KJV ‘servant’ is used then I don’t need a dictionary—but am at the mercy of my pre-existing ideas of what a servant is (not that vassal is necessarily the right word; Ancient Israel wasn’t Mediaeval Europe).

    Personally I’m more concerned with words like ‘propitiation’ where the dictionary definition sends me straight back to the Bible as the only use of the word.

    I’m also concerned with phrases where I can look up the meaning of each word—but still be unable to understand the meaning.

  15. Doug says:

    I feel translations written for adults should definitely seek to educate, not be afraid of using words that someone may not know or understand. Words like propitiation and vassal have meanings that are not easily translated to a single word or phrase. Perhaps the revised NIV could have a short dictionary in the back with definitions of these words that need a better explanation.

  16. Hannah C. says:

    I know most of the words on that list – and not from reading the Bible, either, but from reading things for my AP English Language class or my AP English Literature class or from reading various and sundry books I’ve had to read in college. I’m starting my junior year. I don’t think I’m that over-educated…

    Some of the words make sense in the context of the Bible, as well. For example, Praetorium: my guess is that was used in the New Testament, in the Gospels, to refer to something involving the Romans. That would be correct usage, I think. Perhaps an explanatory note could be in order, but honestly I remember learning about that word in world history in high school…Rampart, vassal, battlements also fall into this category.

    As for gecko, anyone who’s seen a Geico commercial knows what it is. As long as the Bible’s meaning is the same as today’s meaning I see no problem with it.

    I think the correct word should be used, with an accurate meaning. Personally, I think “debauchery” would be a great word for some of the passages which discuss it! A Bible translated with adults in mind should be free to use the most correct word. I also agree with another poster that words like “propitiation” are confusing – but that’s Biblish.

  17. John says:

    You can’t just quote lists like this and make a meaningful argument. For example, “algum” is probably just a transliteration of an unknown tree. NLT substituted red sandlewood which is pure speculation that is in all probability wrong. NLT substitutes blue-green beryl for chrysolite. Whilst I can imagine what chrysolite might be, I have no clue what beryl is. NLT also uses filigree and behemoth and leviathan and mother-of-pearl, so apparently they couldn’t improve on those. And those are just the ones I can bother spending 2 minutes checking on.

  18. Wayne Leman says:

    John wrote:

    You can’t just quote lists like this and make a meaningful argument.

    You’re right, John, if the list had been given as a definitive one of vocabulary that needed to be revised in the NIV. Please re-read all the qualifications I used to describe the list, including the fact that I was using it only about my own reactions to the larger lists cited earlier in the post. And even for myself, I do know some of the words in the reduced list in the post. But, as I wrote, they may not be in my “active” vocabulary. I am raising questions in the post, not stating anything categorically for all speakers.

    The point of the post is that any translation, in this case, the NIV, *may* have vocabulary which is unfamiliar to enough people that it may need to be revised.

  19. Hannah C. says:

    I found it rather interesting that, when reading Plugged In Online’s “Culture Clips,” I came across this quote:

    QUOTE: “VH1 has come a long way since its inception in 1985 as an adult contemporary version of MTV. In this decade, the network has carved a reality show niche, catering to 20-somethings with a penchant for bad fashion, heavy alcohol intake and a willingness to do anything for their 15 minutes of camera time. … Smut, amorality and debauchery are as common on VH1 now as George Michael and Kenny G. were in the late ’80s. Ratings have never been higher.” —Boston Herald contributor Michael Marotta [, 8/24/09]

    If the word “debauchery” is being used in the news, what should its status be considered to be? I am genuinely curious.

  20. Billy says:

    So how hard is it to learn the definition of propitiation? Especially with Google……….btw how do we know what Google is? Twitter?

    Doesn’t Bible study already require some effort?

    Don’t many good things in life, appreciation for Jazz for example, require some effort on the part of the listener?

    Doesn’t the average teen put in more effort in learning the acronyms, i.e., lol roftl ymmv wtf than learning certain words in the NIV?

    If the Bible represents some form of the word of God whats wrong with learning a bit of the “insider language”? Again jazz aficionados often use the word hip in a completely different sense than a body part, playing outside to mean something other than al fresco. Do opera singers complain to them that they should change their language to make simpler to understand?

    Did the book Watership Down have poor sales because it contained rabbit jargon?……..Rabbish, Rubbish? or did it actually add to the enjoyment of the book and a better understanding of the way a rabbit really thinks………..

  21. Ruben says:

    Hi Billy, I think you are looking at it from a reader’s point of view whereas most posters look at it from a translator’s point of view. A translator is concerned first of all with making sure that the hearer understands everything. I think the tone of the Bible is affected by literal translations with the traditional church words, it is refreshing and eye-opening to read the scriptures in language that is simple and accessible. The heavy theological words are loaded with tradition, sometimes so much so that we no longer understand what they first meant.

  22. WWilliam says:

    Well, that was my point sort of……….

    One certainly doesn’t translate the Bible for the translator, they translate for the reader.

    Are you saying the translators’ role is to determine the literary style the reader should read?

    How is the Bible, “affected by literal translations with the traditional church words”?

    Why is it so “refreshing and eye-opening to read the scriptures in language that is simple and accessible”?

    I think very highly of the Message Bible. I often use it as a comparison when I’m using E-Sword. Its kind of like a set of additional notes to the more formal translations. It appears to layman as being fairly accurate, but after a while the hip language wears on me, and m e g o occurs and my brain drifts.

    To keep with my prior metaphor its like the difference between Rap and Jazz. Rap being simple and accessible, but often predictable and repetitive. Jazz, for me is often, more refreshing and eye opening.

    “Heavy theological words are loaded with tradition…” so? is tradition a bad thing? As I understand it Catholicism relies heavily upon tradition………so does golf. Rock and Roll relies heavily upon Blues, as Jazz relies much on traditional Afro centric forms of polyrhythm.

    I used to really like the NIV but since the publication of the ESV Study bible I now prefer it.

    If I have to think about what a particular word means it causes me to think in general. I can look it up on Wikipedia, and I do to get the denotation but then I must think/analyze/feel the ESV to get the connotation.

    Denotation is the specific, literal image, idea, concept, or object that a sign refers to.

    Connotation is the figurative cultural assumptions that the image implies or suggests. It involves emotional overtones, subjective interpretation, socio-cultural values, and ideological assumptions.

    While simpler and more accessible may deliver the original meaning/definition it may not convey the original connotation, hence something is missing, and hence we may just end up with a cold factual account devoid of spirituality and emotion.

  23. Dru says:

    I’ve been abroad for a week and haven’t been able to come back on this before.

    I agree with Peter that some of these words strike me as normal. Some others even in the first line or two are adder, ardent, battlements, bier, blighted, booty, brayed, breaching, and carrion. So, from the second list for me are, aghast, annotations, bewilderment, blunted, blustering, brooches, brood, charioteers, commemorate, cooing, dejected, deluded, desecrate, detachment, disheartened and disillusionment. These are all from the first line or two, and are all words I might well use in speech.

    I also agree that a word with a technical meaning should be translated accurately if at all possible. Although hoopoes are rare here, it has a precise meaning. If that is what the word means, that is the translation one should use, rather than something more familiar but less accurate.

    On the other hand, ‘fawn’ is probably better now than ‘roe’, which is at risk, depending on context, of implying fish eggs rather than a small deer. Roebuck, though is clear.

    To me, a libation is not the same thing as a drink. I thought it meant a drink-offering. I haven’t checked the context in which the NIV uses it. If it uses it just to mean a drink, I would say that is a bad translation. If it uses it to mean a drink-offering, I would say that is correct and ‘drink’ would not be.

    Likewise, a vassal is not the same thing as a servant.

    I don’t think there’s any word in the second list I’d be unlikely to use, though I can see that ‘mattock’ is a bit technical and ‘thong’ is definitely now multiply ambiguous.

    In the first list, I’d be unlikely to use algum, behemoth, belial, calamus, capital (not a city), carnelian, chrysolite, coney, cors, denarius, dandled, estal, hearld, mina, porphyry, sated, sistrums, stadia, tamarisk, tetrarch, terebinth, and wadi.

    Most of these are technical words. There is a legitimate question whether one uses words like mina and denarius or equivalents. Drachmae of course were what the Greek’s called their money until they adopted the euro. Likewise, I actually prefer ‘valley’ as a translation to ‘wadi’, which has a precise meaning which I’m not sure is specifically intended when it appears in modern translations.

    I know ‘armlets’ would make any child think of the swimming pool, but for that reason, they would all know what the word means. Better to use it and perhaps explain that it doesn’t automatically mean they have to be inflatable.

    On balance, I think I prefer whoredom to promiscuity. It has fewer syllables and gets across a more direct sense of disgust. But I’d drop the ‘s’ on the end. Likewise I’d regard ‘debauchery’ as an excellent word for getting across the same flavour.

  24. Peter Kirk says:

    While simpler and more accessible may deliver the original meaning/definition it may not convey the original connotation …

    William, this is indeed a problem with any kind of translation. It is extremely difficult to convey the correct connotations as well as the correct denotation in a translation.

    But literal translations are not the answer. Very often the traditional literal equivalent word for an original language word carries quite the wrong connotations in modern English. For the most part the original authors used ordinary everyday words to convey truth about God. The obscure English words used in versions like ESV to render these Greek and Hebrew words, I mean the English words which you “must think/analyze/feel”, often have a quite inappropriate connotation of high level technical academic or religious vocabulary. This is one of my major objections to versions like ESV. I consider that TNIV does a significantly better job in this area without running into the kinds of problems you identify with The Message.

  25. Joel says:

    WWilliam: Are you saying the translators’ role is to determine the literary style the reader should read?

    I think the translator’s role is to let the text determine the literary style of the translation. When the original is formal, the translation should be, too. When the the original is poetic, the translation should match. And so forth.


  26. Dru says:

    Do the words ‘estal’ and ‘hearld’ exist, either as words or in the NIV? I’ve done an electronic check and haven’t been able to find them.

  27. Peter Kirk says:

    “Vestal” is not in NIV, according to my concordance which is based on the pre-1984(?) Anglicised edition. “Herald” is: Daniel 3:4, Habakkuk 2:2, 1 Timothy 2:7, 2 Timothy 1:11. These words are also in my printed (US 1984) edition, and in my (UK) TNIV.

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