What big mystery

Four years ago I posted about the Latin text O magnum mysterium, and explored the links between the words in it and modern-day English words. Given that English is not a Latinate language, it is perhaps surprising that all but two of the Latin words have related words in English. Or perhaps not, because Latin was the primary language of the Christian church in England for at least approximately 950 years. 

One of the choirs I sing in recently sang the anthem to this text by Francis Poulenc. On the first page of the printed score was a French translation. French is a Latinate language, and it was interesting to see the similarities and differences between the Latin and French texts. Some words are very similar, some have been changed almost beyond recognition and some have been substituted for other words.

The Latin text is:
O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, iacentem in praesepio!
O beata virgo, cuius viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Iesum Christum.

The French text is:

Quel grand mystère et admirable sacrement, que des animaux aient pu voir, couché dans une crèche, le Seigneur vient de naître!
Bienheureuse Vierge dont les entrailles ont mérité de porter le Christ – Seigneur.

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Singing in languages

Last weekend one of the choirs I sing in presented a concert which had been delayed and disrupted by COVID and reduced in numbers by choristers travelling. Alongside works in English, liturgical Greek and Latin, we sang works in Church Slavonic (a movement from Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom) and Latvian (a new work by a local composer of Latvian birth or heritage). 

Church Slavonic and Latvian are both Indo-European languages, so I was on the lookout for any words which are obviously related to other IE languages I know about. But the only words I could discern are loan words into those languages just as into English: kheruvímy (cherubim) in the former and fenikss (phoenix) and oranži (orange) in the latter (all heavily influenced by the pronunciation and spelling of those languages). There is also trisvętúju in the former, which is guessable as trinity

Even though all these languages are Indo-European, they are obviously very different. Even though Church Slavonic and Latvian are both Balto-Slavic, they are obviously very different. Among other things, Church Slavonic is Slavic and Latvian is Baltic. Also, the texts we sang are liturgical dating to perhaps the 9th century and a 19th century secular poem. 

Linguists started by comparing closely related languages, such as Church Slavonic, Bulgarian and Macedonian, and Latvian and Lithuanian, then work their way back from there, eventually linking Polish, Czech and Slovak, the Balkan languages, the Russian-related languages and others into Slavic and thence with Latvian and Lithuanian into Balto-Slavic and then Indo-European. (Some people have attempted to reconstruct further back than than that, but their efforts are speculative and inconclusive at best.)

PS The Latvian poem is Putns ar uguns spārniem (which I can’t find anywhere online) by Aspazija. The title translates as Bird with wings of fire. I wondered if putns is related to a certain Russian surname, but no, the certain Russian surname apparently comes from put (path or way) + in (belonging to) and probably means something like ‘one who travels on a path’. (I couldn’t find any authoritative source and am relying on several user-submitted websites.)

Calvin and Neri

A few days ago (26 May), parts of the Christian Church commemorated John Calvin (1509-64) and/or Philip Neri (1515-95). Apart from living at the same time, the two had almost nothing in common. Or maybe because they lived at the same time, because the 16th century was a time of great contentions in the church, which haven’t been fully resolved.

In Geneva, then a more-or-less independent town, Calvin and the town and church authorities “together enforced stringent a moral and social code. There were fines for non-attendance at church; denying God was punished by three days’ imprisonment on bread and water in the first instance, and a whipping for further offences; all festivals were abolished except for Sunday, the Lord’s Day; Christmas was to be celebrated on the Sunday following 25 December; swearing, the singing of bawdy or promiscuous songs, and provocative dances were all proscribed”. 

Meanwhile, Neri“would sometimes wander the streets of Rome, talking to young people employed in the city. Though he was shy, he had a gift for friendship, and he induced some of them to join hims in helping patients in the city hospitals, and to visit churches with him. In 1548, he founded a confraternity to look after pilgrims to Rome and care for the convalescent … He began to hear confessions, and because he was really interested in the people who came to him, and treated them kindly, many came to him for spiritual guidance”. He established an oratory for prayer, hymns, reading the bible, the lives of the saints and the works of the mystics, lectures and discussions, and music (oratorios), and drew people from all classes of Roman society. 

If Jesus could pick two men like the tax collector Matthew and the Zealot Simon, then the Christian church can contain two men like Calvin and Neri. Somehow.

(Not to be confused with Calvin and Hobbes, who are way different; this Calvin has very little in common with his namesaker.)

main source and quotes: The Saints of the Anglican Calendar by Kathleen Jones, Canterbury Press, 2000

Sing Noël! Sing Gloria!

It was probably inevitable that a married couple of songwriters named Noël and Gloria would write a Christmas song. Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne wrote Do you hear what I hear? (first recording, by the Harry Simeone Chorale) in October 1962. 

Or maybe not, because his name was actually Léon, and he was hesitant to write a Christmas song due to the commercialisation of Christmas. Noël wrote the words, influenced by the then-current Cuban Missile Crisis and Gloria the music.

Gloria came into English straight from Latin, and also via Old French glorie to become Middle English glory. I couldn’t figure out what the origin of noël (or noel) might be, and would not have guessed that it comes from Latin diēs nātālis day of birth (compare nativity). French did drastic things to Latin (note also that glorie became gloire), but that one is a stretch. Noël is a relatively late arrival into English, dating from 1805-1815. The First Nowell was first published in 1823.

“You may now kiss the priest”

All of the languages I know anything about, and probably all languages ever, have words that mean two or more completely different things, with greater or lesser chance of confusion depending on whether two meanings are likely to be used in the same context.

The Korean word 신부 (shin-bu) means priest and bride, which are very likely to be used in the same context. A Korean Anglican priest friend of mine sometimes posts information about seminars on his Facebook book page, and Facebook’s autotranslator usually renders the keynote speaker as eg Hong Gil-dong Bride rather than Hong Gil-dong Priest. (“You may now kiss the 신부” wasn’t in our wedding service; in fact it’s not officially in any church wedding service I know anything about.)

I have just stumbled across (I have forgotten exactly how) the 2004 Korean movie 신부수업 (shin-bu su-oeb), which is either ‘the priest’s lesson’ or ‘the bride’s lesson’ (or possibly deliberately both). Probably to avoid spoiling the ambiguity, the movie is titled Love, so divine in English (with a nod to the hymn When I survey the wondrous cross). Youtube has the complete movie, which is not subtitled in English, which I’m probably going to get sucked into watching anyway, in the name of linguistic research. (Trailer half-way down this page.)

At the beginning there is neither a priest nor a bride; he is a Roman Catholic seminarian and she is a soon-to-be-single woman. At the end, there can only be one of a priest or a bride; either he stays true to his priestly vocation or they get married (or at least coupled). (If it was the Anglican Church of Korea, which also uses the title 신부, there’d be no problem.)

 (Both meanings of 신부 are derived from Chinese, but have different Chinese characters: 神父 for priest and 新婦 for bride.)

(There is another movie 어린 신부, which is either about a young priest or a young bride. A brief search clearly answers that one.)

(PS I showed my wife the movie poster and title in Korean, and asked which she thought of first when she heard or read 신부. She pointed at the woman, but then said “The man’s clothes look like 신부님”, so maybe ‘priest’ is always/often used with the honorific. At several points in the movie so far, the young man has addressed the older priest as 신부님.)

(PPS Now that I’ve watched the whole movie, I’m not totally sure about how it ended. Whichever way, it was very understated. I might have to ask my wife to watch at least the last few scenes. But I’m sure that the 신부 of the title is the young man/seminarian/future priest.)

(PPPS The bigger question is how native speakers and second language learners of any language resolve ambiguities, including homonyms.)

gentleness, moderation, softness

One of the readings at church last Sunday was from Philippians 4, starting Rejoice in the Lord always, and continuing Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The preacher spoke mainly on the idea of gentleness. 

As a choral singer, I know two anthems on that text, one by Henry Purcell (which my number one commenter of recent times, Batchman, mentioned in a recent comment) and the other by Anon or John Redford. The first uses the text Let your moderation be known and the second Let your softness be known, so obviously there are different translations out there. In fact, Bible Gateway has 25 overlapping translations of these words in 62 versions. These can be divided into noun( phrase)s (typically Let your N be known, or Let everyone see your N) and adjectives (typically Let everyone see that you are Adj). 

gentleness 20
gentle spirit 3
gentle spirit [your graciousness, unselfishness, mercy, tolerance, and patience] 
gentle attitude
gentle nature 
moderation 5
forbearance 4
kindness 3 
graciousness 2
gracious attitude  
reasonableness 2 
chassidus (piety) 1
modesty 1
patience 1
patient mind 1
unselfishness (your considerateness, your forbearing spirit) 1

gentle 3
gentle and kind 3
gentle and gracious 
gentle [kind; considerate; patient]
considerate 3
reasonable and gentle 
unselfish and considerate 

Two are very different: the Message version, which has Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them and the Worldwide English version, which has Let everyone know that you think kindly of others before yourselves.

The Greek word behind all these English translations is ἐπιεικής, epieikés, from epí upon and eikos equitable, fair. It is an adjective; the equivalent noun is epieíkeia. Bible Hub explains: epieikḗs (“justice beyond ordinary justice”) builds on the real intent (purpose) of what is really at stake … and hence, is true equity that appropriately fulfils the spirit (not just the letter) of the law. 

I first said to the preacher that the best word out of all those seems to be moderation, but I later thought of the rather cumbersome equitability  and equitableness, which, not surprisingly, none of the translations uses.

If any Greek (or Hebrew) word has 25 different (but overlapping) meanings in English (or any other language), can we say what the bible says (or even means)? I’m sure it is possible to worry too much about this, as I have probably just done.  


Our church has been running Sunday and weekday services online for some time. Last week, one prayer leader introduced the prayers with a formula something like “For the world/particular people, we intercess”. I really shouldn’t be thinking about linguistics when I really should be praying, but obviously intercess piqued my interest. 

Without doubt, intercede is the ‘correct’ word here, but intercess is clear and makes perfect sense. It’s in Wiktionary, but not any other dictionary I searched. A general Google search takes me to intercede, intercession or intercessor, but using “intercess” in quotation marks finds a scattering of uses in the relevant sense. Also, Google Ngrams shows a flat line rather than ‘no results’, meaning some use, but close to zero compared with intercede. Pages for Mac changes intercess to internees and intercessing to interceding and red-underlines then when I change them back.  

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Family history part 2

After our father died, a cousin of my mother’s father sent a card and we needed to figure out where she fitted in. I found a family tree which traces that family back to the Kings of Scotland. I was looking at that again, and spotted the name Margaret of Scotland, who was the wife of Malcolm who becomes king at the end of Macbeth (which is before they were married). She was known for her faith and charity, and is a saint in some parts of the church.

(I suspect that millions of people of Scottish heritage can say the same.)

death defying

James Edmeston wrote the hymn Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us in 1821. His original second verse, addressing Jesus, includes:

Lone and dreary, faint and weary,
Through the desert thou didst go

Many Christians are hesitant to think, talk, write or sing about Jesus as in any way limited, even as they talk about him being fully human (and fully divine). Some modern hymn books have changed that to:

Self-denying, death defying,
Thou to Calvary didst go

but death defying just gives the wrong impression. Google Ngrams reports death(-)defying stunts, feat(s), leap(s), act(s), death(?), courage, spirit and notes(?). Death-defying is a very 20th-century concept, and was almost unknown before then. 

(Google’s first suggestion of a video was from the Queen’s 90th birthday service of thanksgiving (2016), at which this second version was sung.)

A third version is:

Yet unfearing, persevering,
To thy passion thou didst go

which sounds the most reasonable. Note that the original words refer to Jesus’s 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness, while the altered words refer to his crucifixion and death. The last lines of versions 2 and 3 are probably interchangeable. (Note also that the first line each time rhymes within itself, while the second line rhymes with lines earlier in the verse. The overall rhyming scheme is A B A B cc B.)

Many hymns are rendered problematic to some degree by changes of meaning, grammar, theology, sociology or taste. The question is whether we stop singing them, stick with the original words at the risk of people misunderstanding them, or change them; if so, by whom and how.


One Christmas Eve many years ago, I attended a party in the early evening before going to church for the midnight service. When I told another party-goer this, he huffily said that he didn’t believe in anything the church taught because it is impossible for human-shaped angels to have bird-shaped wings because of musculature and the size of the breast bone. Random social conversations often flummox me, this one more than most. I can’t remember what I said or did in reply. Probably excused myself very soon after.

The only references to heavenly creatures having wings come in visions (Isaiah, Ezekiel, John are probably the best known), and those are never called angels, and none of the creatures called angels which interact with humans on earth are described as having wings. Isaiah calls them seraphim and only describes them as having faces, feet and six wings which operate in three pairs independently. Ezekiel calls them “living creatures … Their form was that of a man”, but they otherwise had four faces, four wings and various other obviously non-human features. John also refers to “living creatures” with six wings, one of which had “a face like a man”. Clearly, earthly laws of biology and physics do not apply to visions of heaven.

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