Word of the Week – Alphabet and ABC

Word of the Week – Alphabet and ABC

Here on the blog, we examine a lot of word histories and etymologies. But have you ever paused to wonder about the letters that make them up? One reader asked me to look into the history of the alphabet itself…which is quite a thing! Of course, I figured the place to start was actually with the word alphabet and, because it led me to it in contrast, ABC.

I’ve known for a long time that alphabet is from the first two Greek letters, alpha and beta. So the word is in fact very similar to ABC. But in my head alphabet was just a bit more sophisticated. I mean, it’s from Greek! That surely gets it bonus points, right? That was obviously the primary word or idea, and we just turned it into ABCs as a simpler or even dumbed-down version. Right?


As it turns out, ABC has been used to speak of the alphabet since the 1200s! And it was even used figuratively to mean “the rudiments of a subject” (like “the ABCs of biology”) as early as the 1300s.

Which only becomes surprising when I looked and saw that alphabet–which I thought was the more primary of the words–didn’t join the English language until the 1570s! That is A LOT later! Or, well, at least in that sense. It was actually used by the end of the 1400s to mean “learning acquired through reading.” Not a sense still in use, to be sure.

Before the Latinate and Grecian terms were used, Old English still had an alphabet though, so still had a word for it. What was it? Nothing that will look familiar. They used stæfræw, which literally means “row of letters.”

As for the letters themselves and how they were chosen and assigned…well, you’ll have to tune back in next week!

You called me, Master?

You called me, Master?

I’ve always loved the story of Samuel. In fact, as a writer, I’ve claimed the verse about none of his words falling to the ground as what I should be striving to live up to. There are so many lessons we can glean from this wise prophet who heard directly from God.

But the last time I was reading through I Samuel, I found myself dwelling not on who he turned out to be, but rather on where he began. More specifically, on where his relationship with the Lord began.

We’ve all read the story countless times, right. Samuel is sleeping in the sanctuary and he hears someone calling his name. He thinks it’s Eli, so he runs to the priest to ask what he needs. This repeats several times before finally Eli realizes it’s God calling the boy and instructs him in how to respond.

Familiar, yes. So familiar. So familiar, yet I’d never looked at it in quite the way I found myself looking this last time through.

Samuel was a child. We don’t know how old he was at this point, but certainly young enough that the word used is “lad” rather than “man” or even “young man.” He was a child who had grown up serving the Lord in a very physical sense, but the Word of the Lord “was rare in those days.” He wasn’t raised to expect to hear from Him. He hadn’t been trained in how to listen. He was just doing the normal, expected thing, keeping the altar fires burning.

But God spoke. God called.

And Samuel didn’t know His voice. How could he have? He’d never heard the Lord before. But he had heard Eli, many times every day. Shouldn’t he have known that it wasn’t Eli’s voice? Maybe the Lord sounded similar in his ears.

Maybe it was the only reasonable explanation.

Or maybe he recognized authority in the voice that called to him. Maybe he knew that whoever was calling “Samuel!” was expecting to be answered.

Samuel didn’t hesitate or complain, he simply rushed to his master, Eli the priest, and asked what he needed. He went back to his place, no doubt confused and wondering if he’d been dreaming when Eli said, “No, I didn’t call you.” But then it happened again. And again.

Samuel didn’t know how to listen. But God still called. Over and again, God called.

Would He have repeated this process another time? Five times? Ten? How long would God have called this boy?

The answer, I have to think, is until he learned how to answer.

Because God knew the heart of this child was one ready to be molded to His will. He knew that this boy, unlike all the priests and other Levites in the sanctuary, would do His work. He would obey His voice. He would listen to His instruction and to His heart, and he would act in His will. Live in it. Carry it before him like a torch.

But first, Samuel had to learn. He had to learn how to answer. He had to learn whose voice he was hearing. He had to be told, “God is calling you.”

God is calling you. He’s calling your name, and He’s not just asking you to deliver a message of doom to your teacher, He’s inviting you to walk with Him. He’s inviting you into His sanctuary. He’s asking you to do His work. To obey His voice. To listen to His instruction and to His heart. He’s asking you to act in His will. To live in it. To carry it before you like a torch.

Feel like you don’t know how to answer? You aren’t sure what’s God and what’s your own imagination, or the people closest to you? You’re in good company! We all have to learn.

But that’s okay. Because God is the most patient teacher. He knows your potential, so He will call to you, and call again, and call again until you realize you’ve been answering the wrong person and finally say, “Speak, Lord! Your servant is listening!”

Are you ready to truly listen, and to carry out His will?

Word of the Week – Radical

Word of the Week – Radical

Radical. Generally, when we hear this word today, it’s being used to describe political or other views and positions. It means, in that sense, “extreme.” And because it’s used like that so often, we tend to think of it that way still when we hear phrases like “radical surgery” or “a radical mastectomy.” Wow, we might think, that must be quite an extreme surgery!

And it may be…but in fact, that use of radical is very much secondary, and it isn’t at all what’s meant in the scientific, mathematical, or medical communities when they use the word. Because, you see, radical actually means “pertaining to the roots or origins” or even “vital to life.” Radical is from the Latin radix, which literally just means “roots.”

For hundreds or even thousands of years, radical was used very literally, and it’s still used literally in the scientific and mathematical communities. But it began to take on figurative meaning in the 1650s, at which point it meant “going back to the origin, essential.”

How, then, did it come to mean an extreme? That’s an interesting journey! In the early 1800s, politicians began to use the word to describe “reformists”…those who claimed to be trying to restore a political party (or religious group) back to its origins. But along the way “reformist” just came to mean any sort of change…and then, eventually, extreme change.

Which of course means that radical has the distinction of being one of those few words that can be the opposite of itself, meaning both “the original position” and “the extreme position.” Who knew that the etymology of radical could be so radical?! (The surfer slang came around in the 1970s, meaning “at the limits of control,” and became popularized in the 80s.)

Return to Default

Return to Default

I don’t know about you, but I love it when I see people in Scripture behaving like…well, like people. Like I would do. I love seeing how they were humans just like me. They mess up, they say the wrong thing–sometimes the stupid thing–and sometimes…sometimes they even just revert to default behavior when they don’t know what else to do. We can see a great example of this with Peter and the others after Christ’s resurrection, before His ascension:

Some time later, Jesus once again revealed himself to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, in the following manner. Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were gathered together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going out to fish.” The others replied, “We will go with you.” They set off and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Shortly after daybreak, Jesus was standing on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus called out, “Children, have you caught anything?” When they answered, “No,” he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” They did so, and they were unable to haul the net on board because of the great number of fish.

~ John 21:1-6

Let’s imagine for a minute that we’re there with the disciples. They’d gone through Holy Week with Christ. They’d seen him crucified. They’d gone to the empty tomb. Christ Himself had appeared to them in a locked room, not once but twice. And John tells us that Jesus performed other signs for the disciples that weren’t recorded. In short:

They knew. They knew their Lord had defeated death. They knew He’d been raised to life again. They knew it.

But…then what?

Haven’t we all been there? We had that shock, that jolt, that lightning bolt epiphany. It’s real! He’s alive! He really is Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God! We are filled with joy unspeakable. Amazement unfathomable. Peace unknowable.

And then…what? Life is going on, ticking by, but what are we supposed to do? Jesus didn’t give us instructions, most likely. He hadn’t given them any at this point. We know that for at least a week, quite likely more, they were just hiding out in that upper room where He’d appeared to them twice. They must have been getting antsy. They must have begun to ask, “Now what? What are we supposed to do? Do we go out…? But we might get arrested, then what good would we be? Do we just sit here? Wait for Christ to visit us again, and press Him for some instructions this time? WHAT DO WE DO?”

I can just imagine Peter–bold, daring Peter–slapping his hands to his legs and standing up. He’d had enough of sitting around, and if he didn’t know what to do…well then, he’d just do what he’d always done. “I’m going fishing.”

Fishing. A normal, everyday activity. More, the one he’d been raised for, trained in, the thing he’d made a living at all his life, until three years ago. Fishing. The thing he knew best. But not only that. Fishing–the thing he’d been doing when Jesus first called him.

I don’t think that had ever struck me before. In a way, Peter is just returning to his default setting, right? Going back to the thing he knows best. Reverting to old behavior. He’s pressing the reset button, unplugging the machine, returning to factory settings.

But it’s not only that. He’s also returning to the place, to the activity, where Jesus had met him before. He’s doing the thing that had first made him aware of Jesus’ holiness, to where Jesus had said, “From now on, you’ll be a fisher of men.”

Sometimes we just need that reminder. We need to go back to where it all started and remember. We need the comfort of those old nets in our hands, our boat under our feet. We need fresh air and water lapping the hull and our best friends, our brothers beside us. Sometimes, we just need to go back to the place where our faith began.

Why? Well, we see that in this story too. Because Jesus meets Peter there again–in fact, we see a replay of their first meeting. The lack of a catch, the instructions to cast again on the other side, the net-testing haul.

But this time, they didn’t have to ask who this Man was. They knew. I imagine Peter squinting toward the shore, but unable to see the figure he’d heard so clearly. I imagine John–the youngest–elbowing him in the side, his own eyesight just fine. “It’s the Lord!” he proclaims. And that’s all Peter needs. He takes his cloak, jumps in the water, and swims to shore. There’s no stopping him, no waiting for that heavy-laden boat to be rowed back. He knows his Savior is there, right there, and nothing will keep him away.

I hope that’s how we all are when we revert to the comfort of our default position. I hope we see it, not as something just to fill our time or give us something to do or make us some money. I hope we see the comfort of the familiar as the gateway to the Divine. That we see it as putting ourselves in the place where we met Jesus, so we can encounter Him again.

And I pray that when we hear His voice, we listen, just like Peter did. I pray that the moment someone says, “It’s the Lord!” our hearts quicken within us, and we JUMP. Jump for the fastest way to meet Him wherever He is.

I pray that our default position becomes “meet the Lord.” Whatever that might look like for you.

Word of the Week – Fire

Word of the Week – Fire

Fire. This one ranks as a word used often and well known. So why, you wonder, would I look into the etymology and history? Largely because there are so many interesting ways to use it, both as a noun, and a verb, that have cropped up over the years! I thought today we’d just take a look at a list of some common ways to use it and when it developed.

The main noun dates all the way back to Old English and has Germanic roots. The current spelling is from the 1200s, but the Middle English spelling of fier didn’t completely vanish until the 1600s, and we can still see it today in words like fiery.

It’s been used metaphorically for feelings of passion since the 1300s.

The phrase “on fire” is from the 1500s, which I find surprising! Before that, it was in fire. Who knew?!

Discharging a weapon is from the 1580s (hello, gunpowder!).

People have been using the metaphorical “playing with fire” to mean “risking danger” since 1861, and asking “Where’s the fire?” when people are in a hurry since 1917.

Switching to the verb uses, the base “set fire to” goes back to the late 1300s…but interestingly, the metaphorical sense of “inflame or excite” is from the 1200s!

The sense of firing pottery in a kiln is from the 1660s, which is later than I would have thought.

The phrase “fire away” as in “go ahead” is from 1775.

This one has caught me up before–fire meaning “to dismiss someone from their job or position” was first fire out in 1877 and then just fire in 1879, but is unique to American English. (British English has used sacked for that.)

And finally, fire up as a verb meaning “to make angry” is from 1798, and fired up as an adjective followed in 1824.

See? All sorts of fun etymology of the different ways fire has been used throughout the centuries!