How Words Are Born—& What It Has to Do with Bible Study

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Do you know what a ramification is? Yeah, you do; you’ve heard the word, and you’ve probably used it. It’s kind of hard to come up with a definition on the spot, though, so I will help you. My dictionary defines a ramification as “a consequence of an action or event, especially when complex or unwelcome.” Here’s an example sentence, one which any competent speaker of contemporary English will recognize: “The legal ramifications of the judge’s decision will be far-reaching.” With me so far?

Now: do you know your Latinate affixes? Yeah, you do, because you use them all the time. You just know as an English speaker that the “-ation” at the end of ramification makes it a noun, a thing. Just like a celebration is a thing: an act or event of celebrating.

And the “-fic-” in the middle of ramification is—you know this, too—something that means “make” or “do” or “cause.” (It comes from the Latin facere which means these very things.) When C.S. Lewis’s Dufflepuds in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader said they had been “uglified,” you know they were saying that they were made or caused to be ugly, even though you’d never heard the word “uglified” before; indeed, Lewis invented it.

So. Ramifications are (1) things that (2) cause (3) ramis. Which raises a question you probably don’t know the answer to—I didn’t; I had to look it up: What are ramis? Or, more properly, what is a ramus? Simple: it’s the Latin word for “branch.” Consequences of actions or events commonly “branch out” into complex and unwelcome shapes. And that’s how we got the word ramifications. A metaphor—consequences are like branches—became a word.

This is one of the most common ways new words are formed in any language. Metaphors stabilize or even fossilize, and you get a squalling new word in the neonatal unit of the English dictionary. The parents, however, are forgotten. Nobody except a few Latin nerds thinks “branch” when they hear ramification. (Hang on for the Bible study lesson. It cometh.)

Now. Imagine that you write a letter warning a friend who is considering divorce, “The ramifications of divorce are far-reaching.” And then imagine a future historian, writing from Mars in the year 4421, examines this letter—a letter his team found in an archaeological dig in a trash heap in ancient Dayton, Ohio.

Imagine that he explains in a very sober, scholarly book, written in a language that doesn’t exist yet, “In ancient English, ramifications were the unanticipated ‘branching out’ effects of various actions or events. The writer of this faded and torn letter is likely making an allusion to the ways in which the ‘branches’ on family trees are both broken and split by divorce.” If he did this, he would be reading too much into our English. Right?

And yet—here’s our lesson—we Bible students do this all the time with Hebrew and Greek. We find some etymological tidbit, some element of a word’s history, and we excitedly make what feels like a natural and inevitable connection. We don’t stop to think, “Would this connection have been present in the mind of the biblical writer, or of his hearers?” Countless biblical words were born as metaphors. It’s regularly difficult to know, from this distance, whether those metaphors were still active in the minds of their hearers. I try to avoid suggesting that there’s meaning in the Bible I can’t be sure of.

But here’s a tip for Bible teachers: when you teach Paul’s instruction to  “nourish” and “cherish” one’s wife (Eph 5:29), and when you discover that “cherish” comes from a verb that meant, “to make warm,” then use warming as an illustration, but don’t explain where you got it.

Say, “A husband needs to cherish his wife, wrapping her in a permanently warm embrace of love.” Don’t say, “This verse literally tells the man to keep his wife warm.” Even if many women (including my wife, who is perpetually cold) would like the etymological meaning better, the ramifications of treating the Bible this way are bad.

***

This article was originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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Written by
Mark Ward

Mark Ward (PhD, Bob Jones University) is Senior Editor for Digital Content at Word by Word, the official Logos blog. He is the author of several books and textbooks including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption (BJU Press, 2016), Basics for a Biblical Worldview (BJU Press, 2021), and Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Lexham Press, 2018), which became a Faithlife infotainment documentary. He is also a host for Logos Live and is an active YouTuber.

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