Learn Your Faith: Theology and Language

Learning the Faith necessarily includes not only thinking about God in new ways, but also learning new words and terms. Learning to use these words and terms properly is essential because using them incorrectly can lead to philosophical and theological errors of the kind that have divided Christians for almost as long as there have been Christians. There are three common errors we may examine this week.

The first error is one of pronunciation. In the new translation of the Confiteor of the Mass (I confess to Almighty God...) we now use the word grievous in the line “...my most grievous fault.” Note that the word grievous is a two syllable word pronounced GREE-vus; not GREE-vee-us. Perhaps the reason this word is mispronounced is that the similar word mischievous is often mispronounced as well. This word has three syllables and is pronounced MIS-chee-vus, not mis-CHEE-vee-us.

Another error I frequently hear is made in the recitation of the “Hail, Mary”. Oftentimes people say the last line as “...pray for OUR sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” The line is actually, “...pray for US sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

One wonders if this mistake is made for some latent psychological reason. My theory is that none of us is particularly excited to identify himself as a sinner, which is what we must do when we recite the “Hail, Mary”. The line, “...pray for us sinners...” identifies each one of us as a sinner, which of course we are. Whatever the case, the line is the same in every language; “...pray for US sinners...” not OUR sinners.

A final error often made is the substitution of the word cavalry for the similar but different Calvary. The word Calvary is one of the names for the small hill west of Jerusalem on which Jesus was crucified. It is also known by its Greek name Golgotha meaning “the place of the skull”. The word Calvary comes from the Latin calva meaning a scalp without hair (or a skull, by transference) perhaps since the small hill may have reminded those who named it of a skull, but also because of an ancient tradition that Adam was buried there. For this reason, icons of the Crucifixion often depict a skull at the foot of Jesus’ Cross. For the record, the Spanish word calvo from the same root means “bald”.

The word cavalry refers to a group of soldiers (originally) mounted on horses, now more often mounted on Humvees. By contrast, infantrymen were those who fought on foot. And while we are digressing, the word infantry has nothing to do with fighting or feet, but comes from the Latin infansmeaning a baby. My guess would be that the “baby” soldiers fought on foot leaving the “men” to control a horse and fight at the same time. The word cavalry comes from the Latin caballus which gave way to the Spanish caballo and the Italian cavallo. There is no connection between Calvary and cavalry other than their coincidental similar spelling.

We often travel through the world’s languages while we discuss theology because words are the indispensible instruments by means of which God has communicated with us, and with which we communicate God’s Revelation to others. To use the right word and understand what it means and why it is used as it is, is to understand as completely as possible what it aims to communicate. When it comes to the language of God, how can we afford to let mistakes of any kind, whether they be of pronunciation, spelling, misuse, or simple lack of use, to diminish our understanding of Him in any way?

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