The Fear of the Lord and the Lazy Drift of Language

Dear Fearful Faithful:

In 1712, Anglo-Irish Jonathan Swift, of Gulliver’s Travels fame, published an open letter to government official Robert Harley begging him to establish a panel of experts who, with the force of law, could protect the English language from the deteriorating influence of barbaric misuse (or shoulde that be mifuse?).

Swift’s major complaint was the drift of the past tense, abbreviating the language in ways he felt rewarded laziness. Verbs like kiss-ed and pass-ed (dash added to provide emphasis on the second syllable) were drifting so that uneducated pronunciations like “kissed” and “past” were becoming commonplace and destroying the richness of refinement. It’s difficult to argue with such a learn-ed scholar and satirist as Swift, or is that learned?

Protests against language’s drift are common and seem to accelerate with the addition of new communication technologies, introducing abbreviations and shortcuts in service to the tool. The word dial was not considered a verb until its addition to the telephone and, curiously enough, is a term still in common use even though phones with dials have long been out of service. The phrase “knock me up” is still used in England to refer to phoning someone, but the phrase would bring significantly different attention in America (LOL).

Which brings me to the phrase “fear of the Lord”, sprinkled throughout the Psalms and Proverbs and enjoined as the “beginning of understanding”. I was recently asked about the phrase because it felt inconsistent with our understanding of a loving God.

The problem lies in the drift of the English language, not the underlying Hebrew text. With the King James translation in 1611, fear had the meaning of reverence and awe. But language, like an ever-flowing stream, drifted the word fear to more dangerous connotations. Unfortunately, the popularity of the Biblical text had the effect of anchoring certain words with timeless power. The 1976 Good News Translation attempted an update, replacing fear with reverence, but the update was ridiculed as too soft by those who preached a frightening deity most likely unintended in the original text.

Curiously, we flinch at the suggestion to fear the Lord, pausing little over the significantly more anachronistic word Lord, a term with little modern resonance. Some translators have attempted substitutions, rejecting Lord as rooted in class hierarchy. Replacing the word lord with sir works in some places: “Sir, to whom shall we go?” (John 6.68) seems to flow comfortably off the tongue in Young’s Literal Translation of 1862; but Young concluded the verse with the somewhat cumbersome, “thou hast sayings of life age-enduring” rather than the easier, “you have the words of eternal life.” As a result, the informality sir never caught on. (Just an aside, you most likely did not flinch when I ended that last sentence with a preposition, another hard and fast rule of English that is quickly drifting away.)

The tension with term Lord seems to be confined to American English, as there are still lords in England who sit in their estates “knocking up” the commoners, but that’s their problem.

Grasping at straws while our language drifts along, I remain,

With Love,
Jonathan Krogh
Your Pastor