In which the jargon takes over

In general I don’t like Biblish – it’s not the language I speak nor is it the language of those I’d hope to introduce to God. Biblish is marked by strange or ungrammatical language choices and is often insensitive to idioms. And it’s vocabulary? Obscure, transliterated, oblivious to polysemy and maybe even archaic.

But over at God Didn’t Say That Peter Bishop made an insightful comment:

If the Greek “baptizo” had been translated as “submerse” from the beginning–or if it were adopted now and became the accepted standard for a few centuries–wouldn’t “submerse” come to have the same technical meaning that “baptize” does today? “Submerse” would start out as a faithful and accurate translation, but after a while it will become incorrect usage for anyone to talk of submersing pickles, just as today it would be incorrect to talk of baptizing them. The technical meaning of the _act_ of baptism is so ingrained in our culture that when _any_ word is wedded to that act, the act will subsume the entire meaning of the word long before the word has had a chance to shed any light on the act.

This got me thinking: how much has Biblish taken over English? How many English words have become technical religious jargon? How many times has the main meaning of a word become that of Biblish, even for those who aren’t fluent in Biblish? And what does this mean for our attempts at Biblish-less translations? (A related question: how should we translate what was clearly jargon to begin with?)

I’m on the look out now for terms which still communicate clearly and haven’t become religious jargon. I thought I’d start with Wikipedia, though I’ve been disheartened to see how few words qualify. Here’s my list for now (note it’s quite subjective, and you may have a different opinion about what is jargon and what isn’t):

  • blood, as in Jesus’ blood
  • end times
  • eternal life
  • proselyte
  • resurrection

Can you think of other words which aren’t Biblish jargon and still communicate clearly? Which Biblish words can you not think of non-Biblish alternatives for?

26 thoughts on “In which the jargon takes over

  1. John Radcliffe says:

    David said:
    “submerse doesn’t sound like English to me!”
    I’d agree, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the word at all until now.

    A few statistics from Google:
    “immerse” 6.5 million hits
    “submerge” 3.5 million
    “submerse” 90,000

    So whatever word we might think of replacing “baptize” with, it definitely shouldn’t be “submerse”.

  2. Dannii Willis says:

    Haha, so it seems Peter mistakenly(?) used a portmanteau. Hopefully we can look past this as his point still stands and is interesting!

  3. John Radcliffe says:

    In fact Joel got there before Peter. (From what my dictionary says, it would seem that “submerse” is used more as technical biological term.)

    As regards Peter’s underlying point, I’d ask whether we should let the danger that any replacement word will in turn become a technical term stop us. I don’t think so. That argument seems to me a bit like saying that any translation we produce using current English will be out of date in a few years, so why bother.

    In each case the answer is: because of the value the translation will have until that happens.

    And if the new word we use does become a technical term, then future translators would just have to find another replacement word. There will be one; even one has had to be coined to replace the now-technical-term word in its non-technical senses. (Of course it’s possible that because English already has a technical term, our replacement term may not gain technical status.)

    I think the bigger problem, though, is that while “baptize” can mean different things to different people (immerse, sprinkle, etc), that wouldn’t be possible with a word like “immerse”. So we’re unlikely to get everyone to agree on what replacement term should be used.

  4. J. K. Gayle says:

    Outside the biblical English contexts:

    — David, John, Dannii, and WoundedEgo,

    The OED has this:

    “submerse, v. rare. [f. L. submers-, pa. ppl. stem of submergĕre to SUBMERGE. Cf. next.] trans. To submerge, drown. 1837 Fraser’s Mag. XVI. 344 [They] quietly submerse their memories in the waters of Lethe. 1905 Daily Chron. 15 June 6/7 The moving of the submersing lever from a perpendicular to a horizontal position.”

    c1386 CHAUCER Sec. Nun’s T. 34 Thy maydens deeth, that wan thurgh hire merite The eterneel lyf…. 1579 SPENSER Sheph. Cal. Dec. 90 The power of herbs..which be wont to work eternall sleep.”

    — William,

    For Cicero’s De Senectute [Cato the Elder] (Sect. 1, in Latin), W. A. Falconer renders:

    “He does not think that death, which is followed by eternal life, should be a cause of grief.”

    For the Quran, sura 50 (in Arabic), Muhammad M. Pickthall and M. H. Shakir have this Koranish English:

    “in Peace and Security; this is a Day of Eternal Life!”

    And in notes on Plato’s Symposium (in Greek), R. G. Bury has said this:

    “ἀθανασία may be used not simply of quantity but of quality of existence. This is probably the case in 212 A: ‘immortality’ is rather ‘eternal life’ than ‘everlastingness,’ as connoting ‘heavenliness’ or the kind of life that is proper to divinities. So, as the spark divine’ in man is the νοῦς, ἀθανασία is practically equivalent to pure νόησις. On the other hand, in the earlier parts of the discourse the word denotes only duration (ἀθάνατον εἶναι=ἀεὶ εἶναι).”

  5. WoundedEgo says:

    >>>…“ἀθανασία may be used not simply of quantity but of quality of existence…

    Were we talking about ATHANASIA? I was thinking we were talking about ZWH EIS AIWN. ATHANASIA means “undying” and I’m not sure it even appears in scripture, while the phrase ZWH EIS AIWN (literally, “life into the ages”) suggests “life with no end in sight.”

  6. J. K. Gayle says:

    – W.E.,

    Thanks. Quite right: other than “baptizo,” seems we weren’t specifically talking about any particular Greek phrase. However, in the commentary on various Greek words of Plato, Bury himself does use the English phrase “eternal life.” And it seems to me that, given his distinction (i.e., ‘eternal life’ vs. ‘everlastingness’), Bury would have no disagreement with what you said: “… people have infused it [i.e., the English phrase ‘eternal life’] with a meaning other than ‘everlasting’.”

    Further, I was rather indirectly responding to Dannii’s question: “Which Biblish words can you not think of non-Biblish alternatives for?” Maybe I can’t so easily think of the non-Biblish alternatives since these phrases in English translation can also be found in non-biblical, a-biblical, if not pre-biblical contexts.

  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    ATHANASIA means “undying” and I’m not sure it even appears in scripture

    Paul writes it thrice: 1 Cor 15:53 and 54, 1 Tm 6:16. The major English Bible translation teams have rendered the Greek phrase, in those three verses, as variously “immortality,” “immortal bodies,” “what cannot die,” “that will live forever,” “that will never die,” “can never die,” “cannot die,” “life for ever,” and “endless life.”

  8. Dannii Willis says:

    Kurk, the question is not how were words used before, but how are they used now? Evidence of prior non-religious use will help us determine whether a word started out as religious jargon, but it won’t tell us the current status of a word.

  9. Wayne Leman says:

    Dannii, you have asked two difficult but good questions. I’ve been thinking about possible answers and find it difficult to come up with them. I think of words such as crown, worship, and serve, but I don’t think they have been used as technical religious terms.

  10. Theophrastus says:

    Dannii: It appears that you are of the opinion that all of the concepts in the Bible can be expressed clearly in everyday English. I don’t want to put words into your mouth, but it appears you may hold that view.

    If that is in fact your opinion, then I am not certain how you would justify it. The Hebrew Bible is often written in Hebrew that to us appears strange, obscure, and ungrammatical; the NT has heavily Semiticized Greek.

    One can of course ask the question “how can one best adapt the Bible into everyday English” — but even that “best” adaption into everyday English may fall far short of what we can achieve with more technical vocabulary.

    If I pick up a chemistry or biology text, I don’t expect it to be written in everyday English — and indeed, even much classic English literature is not in everyday English. Why should I expect this of a Bible translation that strives for accuracy?

  11. Dannii Willis says:

    Theophrastus, I do think that all Biblical concepts can be expressed clearly in everyday English, although at the expense of succinctness – it might take an long essay to express some concepts. This is where jargon is useful: we can use succinct terms in our translations while also writing good dictionaries that explain the terms in clear everyday English.

    That said, I wouldn’t consider a translation that always just gave into jargon to be a “better Bible”. Sometimes it’s worth finding a way to express something in everyday language. There is some delicate balance to be reached, a balance that will be unique to each translation. Perhaps one of the major differences between the NCV, NLT, NIV, ESV and the RSV is how much of a “jargon quota” the translators found acceptable. I’m of the opinion that much of the jargon in Biblish could be replaced with everyday English, and should be.

    This post is the beginning of a new idea for me though. I guess previously I had the idea that the jargon-status of a word was largely static. Biblish was jargon, known only to the educated insider and unknown to the outsider. But that’s an incomplete picture. Some jargon is known to the outsider, but incorrectly or incompletely. Some jargon didn’t used to be jargon. Some jargon may not be in the future.

    What do we do when we can’t find a clear everyday alternative for a major concept in the Bible? How do we translate iconic terms? Should we fight the jargonisation process? What about when there is everyday language that communicates clearly, but it also brings along some extra baggage (maybe through minor alternative meanings) that the source language didn’t have?

    I don’t know.

  12. Mike Sangrey says:

    Theophrastus wrote: If I pick up a chemistry or biology text, I don’t expect it to be written in everyday English — and indeed, even much classic English literature is not in everyday English. Why should I expect this of a Bible translation that strives for accuracy?

    Why would you think that everyday English couldn’t be accurate?

    I think you’re co-mingling two things–the language used and the quality of accuracy.

    Dannii, I think the technical terms used for Temple furniture would qualify. Also, ‘sacrifice’ might be another. Though I’m thinking specifically of contexts which use the word in its religious sense. There would be contexts where this referent would not be clear without additional “helper” words, especially where the word is used as a metaphor.

  13. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    Here’s three examples. I can’t think off hand of any better translations though:-

    Justify and justification – used conversationally in this discussion in its non-Biblish sense. I don’t even think in Biblish either word has a meaning that’s all that close to the way it’s used in normal speech.

    Worship – I’m not sure what non-Biblish speakers mean when (if) they use this word. I’m not sure though that ‘bow down before’ or ‘kiss respectfully’ will quite meet the bill.

    Sacrifice – used a lot but with a meaning that derives from its Christian use, though usually closer to its meaning in ‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice’ to that in what happened to bulls, goats etc.

  14. Theophrastus says:

    Why would you think that everyday English couldn’t be accurate?

    Well, as I stated above, this is suggested principally because the original material did not use everyday vernacular language (to the best of our ability to tell). Perhaps everyday language is up to the task, but it is hardly obvious — it has not yet been demonstrated.

    Given this, I would suggest that those who discuss translations use more caution with words such as “accurate.”

  15. jkgayle says:

    the jargonisation process

    You may have hit on a real point of issue in this conversation. Different ones of us are assigning different values to what constitutes “jargon” and, as you point out, when we might call it such. This was, in a way, the life work of Walter Ong, who saw orality as basic and literacy as its eventual evolved state, with “secondary orality” as a third synthesis of orality and literacy within literate cultures (like ours and those of the Bible). George A. Kennedy has more recently started theorizing a process he calls “letteraturizzazione.” It’s the “the tendency of rhetoric to shift its focus from persuasion to narration, from civic to personal contexts, and from discourse to literature” or a “slippage of rhetoric into literary composition.” Funny how I’m using jargon from literary studies and from rhetoric to describe a process by which jargon evolves. But our lack of consensus seems to get at the un-even-ness in and about and through this process.

    That chemistry and biology texts (and the very words chemistry and biology themselves) tend to be comprised literalized forms from Latin and from Greek is telling. (By “telling” I don’t really intend a pun; but let’s let it count anyway.) Dru is certainly using language of orality when drawing out what (literate, or written) Biblish might no longer mean in more general contexts. Something about the literal, the transliteral (or transliteration of) words makes them more “technical” and jargony.

  16. Peter Kirk says:

    For a slightly different example of a word that has acquired a technical meaning through the Bible, consider “member”. Originally in English it meant a body part, and that is how it was used in the KJV of 1 Corinthians 12:14ff. But from that Bible passage it acquired first the technical sense of a person associated with the church, and then more broadly of a person associated with any kind of voluntary organisation – and more or less lost its original English meaning. The new meaning has now become so commonplace, and not just in the religious field, that it is no longer technical – but it is quite different from the original meaning.

  17. bibleshockers says:

    Let’s talk about SARX v PNEUMA.

    Paul penned:

    Galatians 5:17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.

    “flesh” (SARX) v “Spirit” (PNEUMA). Is this an accurate rendering?

    What about these?

    New International Version (©1984)
    For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.

    New Living Translation (©2007)
    The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions.

    Is Paul discussing “flesh” or “sinful nature”?

    “sinful nature” is ostensibly an attempt to more accurately render SARX, which, we are to understand, is actually a technical term which is more properly rendered “sinful nature.”

    I consider this a case where the translators were not correct. (I also hold that PNEUMA is “breath” not “Spirit”).

    I consider this modern practice sooooo far off that it masks a profound lack of insight into Paul’s views. What is the correct view?

    Paul’s writings hinge almost entirely on Genesis 2:7:

    Genesis 2:7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

    Man is dirt+breath. Paul refers to man as “flesh+breath” (mistranslated as “sinful nature…Spirit”).

    His perspective is that the clay/flesh of a person is where sin lives. He calls the body “this body of death.”

    The unbeliever breathes and is motivated by the air that is from the ruler of this world:

    Ephesians 2:2 Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air [of] the spirit [air] that now worketh in the children of disobedience:

    So the sinner is “bad air” in “bad clay [flesh]” while the believer has “holy breath” in “bad clay [flesh].”

    This should serve as a cautionary tale for those who want to disconnect too far from scriptural terms.

  18. Dannii Willis says:

    bibleshockers, this isn’t the right post for that sort of discussion sorry. It would however be interesting to consider what flesh and spirit mean to most English speakers now. Spiritual too…

  19. Paul Whiting says:

    I would consider the words “sexual immortality,” “fornication” and “sober” found in the T/NIV to be biblish, or at least archaic.

  20. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    I don’t think any of the bibles I’ve got include ‘sexual immortality’ (sic). What is it? It sound exciting.

    More seriously though, round here ‘sober’ is definitely in normal use, usually to mean ‘not drunk’, rather than ‘serious’. ‘Fornication’, I’d class as a technical term. There has to be some word that has that meaning. The only alternatives I can think of would all be somewhat verbose. So it’s probably necessary.

  21. Donna says:

    I would just like to question the assertion that baptise has *become* biblish. Didn’t it start out as biblish, since it’s a transliteration, not a translation?

    Do you have any better examples of words which were once common parlance and have now become biblish?

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