Monday, 9 October 2017

Choosing our words by Ros Bayes

Last month Google notified me that it was the 308th anniversary of the birth of Dr Samuel Johnson. Immediately my mischievous mind flew to Blackadder, and I couldn’t resist posting this clip on my Facebook timeline.

So I thought this month it might be rather fun, at the risk of becoming something of a blatherskite, to look at some of the more obscure words in our language which have largely fallen into disuse (if, indeed, they were ever common parlance). I hope this post doesn’t send any of you into a state of conniption. At the least perhaps you may acquire some vocabulary that might turn you into a consummate deipnosophist.

I did, in the course of researching this piece, encounter some interesting conundrums (or should that be conundra?) For example, if eating insects is correctly termed entomophagy, would etymophagy be the correct term for making someone eat their words? Most of these terms will only be found in incunabula, and I hope none of them gives rise to a lobomachy.

The problem with such obscure words, though they may provide hours of fun for an etymologist, is that they obnubilate rather than illuminate. They certainly do nothing to enhance a piece of writing intended to communicate. This piece will have had one of three effects – you will have given up and gone away by now; or you will be scratching your head and muttering, “Huh?”; or you will be reaching for a dictionary to try to puzzle it out.

Which brings me to a more serious point. The average unchurched person, picking up a Bible, may find some parts of it just as meaningless at first glance as some of the words above. Our task is to take words which, if we have been long steeped in the Bible, are familiar and self-evident to us, and make their concepts plain to our readers. Some words have modern equivalent meanings which shed light on the original use in our earliest English translations of the Bible. Redemption, for example, is a concept familiar in terms of cashing in a benefit.  Ransom is known from the context of buying the freedom of a hostage. Salvation, in the sense of being snatched from disaster, is something most people can probably understand. 

But some words seem peculiarly applicable to obscure religious contexts and need more explanation. Take propitiation, for example. It does have application in secular contexts, but they are generally almost as unintelligible to the lay person as some of the examples above. The best and most clear explanation I ever heard of propitiation was this: When the NASA scientists first created the Shuttle spacecraft, a vehicle that could be sent into space repeatedly, they had to find some way of preventing it burning up as it re-entered earth’s atmosphere. So they created an effective heat shield which was known as a propitiatory shield. In becoming our propitiation, Jesus shields us effectively from all the consequences of our sin and rebellion – some people would understand that in terms of the wrath of God, others in terms of His holiness, and others in terms of the harm that accrues to us from our own foolish actions. 

However you see it, I think this heat shield is a great picture for explaining the obscure biblical term, propitiation. What obscure or unusual Biblical words do you think need making clear in order to proclaim the Gospel to our generation?

Ros Bayes has 10 published and 4 self-published books, as well as some 3 dozen magazine articles. She is the mother of 3 daughters, one of whom has multiple complex disabilities, and she currently works for Through the Roof ( as their Training Resources Developer, and loves getting paid to write about disability all day. You can find her blog at and her author page at Follow her on Twitter: @rosbwriting.


  1. The clips were wonderful. I am now trying to untangle my mental discombobulation. Serious point, though!

  2. Love it! Excuse me for not reaching for a dictionary as (even being a writer) I don't have one to hand when having a hour or 2's duvet-afternoon - but so agree about the deviousness of those ancient words which obscure the meaning of the Bible to the casual modern reader. Even, actually, describing 'Jesus (as) our King' or 'Jesus is Lord' in choruses is difficult for today's person!

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I had fun writing it!

  4. Atonement? Eternal life? Righteousness? Justification?