In this “Word Nerd: Language and the Bible” video (full transcription below), Mark Ward (author of Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible) explores the origin of the word “Lord” in the English language—a word that, of course, shows up countless times in our English Bibles.
Etymology is the quaint science.
Word histories are for precocious nine-year-old homeschoolers who enjoy presenting irrelevant factoids to bemused adults.
But word histories are history, and they can come with all the drama that human life does. They can even point us to the love and plan of God.
The origin of the word “Lord”
Think, for example, of the clash of Christianity and Anglo-Saxon culture that had to happen to give us the simple word “Lord.” In English-speaking Christianity, “Lord” is the very name of God (“I am the Lord, that is my name,” Isa 42:8). Lord today is wholly unremarkable, utterly traditional. But when Christianity came to the Germanic tribes living on the island of Britain 1,400 years ago, they had no tradition of Christian words. Somebody had to look at the words available and pick some that kind of fit.
Anglo-Saxon Christians of the period used several words to name the biblical God, including one that originally meant “loaf warden.” The hlaf wearden—that’s how the title was spelled in Old English—was the head of the household, the guardian of the staple food that kept the family alive: bread. If that sounds quaint, consider today’s “breadwinner,” which carries a similar meaning. And if it sounds far away, consider my own surname, “Ward,” which comes right from wearden. Over time, “loaf warden” shortened to “lord” (hlafard) and its association with bread died out. It began instead to name the male leader of the family. It was at this time, in the late seventh century, that an Anglo-Saxon hymn-writer, Caedmon, chose to call God Heafunæs Hlafard, the “Heavenly Lord.” He also chose words that meant “guardian” (uard) and “military chief” (dryctin) and applied them to God too. He used the very secular to name the very sacred.
Christianity is multilingual
If you got through that nerdy paragraph, here’s the first payoff: Christianity is necessarily multilingual, and that fact is a testimony to God’s great love for all his creation. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess—in whatever tongue that tongue knows—that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2). Every tribe and tongue will praise the Lamb (Rev 5:9). So anytime Christianity comes to disciple another nation, to bless another family of the earth, that nation’s speech has to be put to Christian use. And it can be. It is part of the genius of Christianity that it isn’t stuck inside some holy language. Not Hebrew, not Greek, not Arabic, not King James English. God can habla Español, he can parlez Français, and he can (something-something) Urdu.
Christian terminology is traditional
You’ll get a second payoff if you think hard with me. It’s really hard, nearly impossible, to put ourselves in the shoes of people whose language had never before been used to say Christian stuff. For us, all Christian terminology is traditional. But there is a way to put yourself in the shoes of horrified, educated Latin speakers who watched as uncouth Anglo-Saxons started trying to talk about God in their barbarous speech. Just think of a dialect of English you secretly (or not so secretly) look down your nose at, a dialect and accompanying accent you’d never expect to come out of the mouth of your neurosurgeon or of a national news anchor, or that you’d never let your child get away with using.
Now imagine if people tried to make a Bible translation into that dialect. Does that give you a weird feeling, like something doesn’t fit? Rest assured: God can speak that English.
We know now what the overall language of English is capable of—countless books, articles, poems, hymns, Bible translations—but Caedmon didn’t know that. Horrified speakers of classical Latin didn’t either.
In the clash between Christianity and English, Christianity won—and so did English.
“Word Nerd: Language and the Bible” is the back-page column in Bible Study Magazine. Watch more Word Nerd videos, or get a free six-month subscription to Bible Study Magazine, the one magazine dedicated to helping you study the Bible with the best tools.
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