Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Words?

It’s surprising how intimating words can be. When I first entered the Army, I never thought I would understand what anybody was saying. Bathrooms were called latrines. Guns were called rifles and the piece that contains the bullets is called a magazine, not a clip. Tanks are called tracks and helicopters are fixed rotary-winged aircraft. Even worse was the level of confusion around all the acronyms. The Army uses so many acronyms that some things are only known by acronyms because everybody forgot what the acronym was short for in the first place. But I was really frightened when I ran into complicated words within the duties of my job that I had never heard before. Reconnoiter? Posse Comitatus? I felt overwhelmed!

Not too long ago I realized that new definitions and big words are a very normal part of life. I’m not much of a handyman so it was a surprise for me when I learned that a skill saw is a circular saw. And what is a reciprocal saw? Cheater bar? Pneumatics? When I was first married I couldn’t figure out what a blouse was. (It’s a lady shirt, if you didn’t know.) And my wife has a hairdryer attachment called a diffuser. A chipotle pepper is a smoked jalapeno. I don’t know why Americans don’t called it a smoked jalapeno; but really, that’s my point. An egress window is a window that a person can escape through. (Learned that one while buying a house.) If you buy stocks or make investments there’s about a million new words and phrases you’ll have to learn and they include things like liquid and materialized and compounding. When a symphony gets louder, it’s called a crescendo. And I still don’t understand what all the new movie theater features are. I-Max, 3-D, and Real D? (I’m afraid if I were to see the rerelease of Titanic in Real-D, I’d actually be on the ship.)

Learning a new vocabulary happens even within Christianity and Christian culture. Imagine what an unchurched person must think the first time he or she visits a church or gets around Christians. Think about it. How many people fellowship? Non-Christians hang out, or party, or whatever, but they never use fellowship in a sentence unless they are talking about a popular Tolkien book or movie. Few people have things laid on their heart. And even the word church is complicated. The non-churched (and some of the churched) only know this word to mean a building. But the Church is the body of Christ that gathers in buildings that we often call a church.

When we start studying the Bible we may run into big words. Don’t panic. Propitiation comes to mind. (That fancy word means to appease wrath; it’s an atonement that satisfies divine judgment and is only perfectly and finally found in Christ.) As we start turning to study Bibles, introductions, and commentaries we may start seeing really big words. There is no reason to be afraid of the big bad words. The truth is, often these words have nuanced and specific meanings beyond just sounding fancy; but most of the time and for many of us, the simpler word will do. However, some people use the bigger words just to sound smart and confuse others, and that’s a wrong use of big words. In academic settings the bigger loaded words are generally a requirement when professors are publishing and students are hoping to get a good grades. But remember, the tools of the theologian are words, so often they will say circular saw over skill saw, chipotle pepper rather than smoked jalapeno, and crescendo instead of getting louder.

Big words in-and-of-themselves are neither bad nor good unless they are used outside of their appropriate time. But many times in a study Bible, introduction, or commentary the bigger words are the most appropriate. So you may see a word like hypostatic union (which means that Jesus is both fully God and fully man). When used in academic circles, this phrase saves times and correctly conveys the meaning intended because it’s fully packed; but for others, it’s just confusing until they become comfortable with the term and the material behind the word. I remember learning about the penal vicarious substitutionary atonement. It’s a mouthful and most of the time it could be simply stated as Christ’s death on the cross. But seminary types and pastors could discuss and argue many aspects of these specific words that the simpler statement doesn’t capture. How about soteriology (the study of salvation), eschatology (the study of end times), the Pauline corpus (the New Testament writings by Paul), or the autographs (the original biblical manuscripts)? The Olivet Discourse is a fancy way to say the discussion Jesus had with his disciples on the Mount of Olives that is found in the synoptic gospels. Oh, and the synoptic gospels—that’s code talk for Mathew, Mark, and Luke. There’s even fancy talk in other languages. For example, in Latin we have the Imago Dei (the image of God) and the Theotokos (the God barer or one who gave physical birth to God, which is Mary). Theologians also seem to love German. Sitz im leben just means the life setting or the setting of life and a weltanschauung is a world view. I know, it’s nuts but it is just how it goes.

Like many other fields, we need not be afraid of words we don’t know when we study the Bible or other tools. These words should not intimidate us. We may need to learn some new vocabulary (or not), but we need not run from or shut the Bible, introduction, or commentary because of these big bad words.

*Photo of Webster's Dictionary by Amy Barker is is used by permission under a creative commons license.