the weblog of Alan Knox

Words have a way of turning around without meaning to

Posted by on Mar 23, 2010 in books, church history | Comments Off

Vocabulary has a way of becoming stylized. This is a widespread human experience. A devout and purposeful woman gathers others of like generosity to live and work in a community. Their style is frugal and unadorned: they simply tie white kerchiefs about their heads. Four centuries later those muslin bandanas have evolved into starched linen headgear that is neither frugal nor unostentatious. What was intended to preserve the past has in effect discontinued it.

It is much the same with words. Feminism that is not all that feminine; a Servant of the Servants of God who expects to be obeyed; waiters who are always in a hurry: words have a way of turning around without meaning to. Often a word is put to use in its original sense. For instance, Jewish synagogues and Christian churches had staff members called hyperetai = diakonoi = servants. In time the Christian diakonoi evolved into powerful administrators. Their title had taken on new overtones. It no longer came across like “employee,” or “assistant.” When translated into other languages it could no longer be replaced with an equivalent word, for to call these executives “servants” would be incongruous. And so diakonos could not be translated at all: it was simply brought across as “deacon.” (James Tunstead Burtchaell, From Synagogue to Church, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 276)