June 24, 2004

Surprising Old Usages

I have been reading Richard H. Schmidt’s wonderful book Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality. Schmidt describes the lives and writings of 29 notable Anglicans, beginning with Thomas Cranmer and ending with Desmond Tutu. For each Anglican writer, he also provides excerpts to help the reader gain a sense of that person’s work firsthand.

Schmidt treats his subjects chronologically, and, since I have only begun reading the book, I have been encountering some old text. This slows my reading somewhat but isn’t otherwise much of a problem. Every so often, however, I am stopped in my tracks by a word that clearly means something different from what it would mean in a modern context.

For example, addressing the intent of sacraments, Archbishop Cranmer writes: “Our Savior Christ hath not only set forth these things most plainly in his holy word, that we may hear them with our ears, but he has also ordained one visible sacrament of spiritual regeneration in water, and another visible sacrament of spiritual nourishment in bread and wine, to the intent that, as much as is possible for man, we may see Christ with our eyes, smell him at our nose, taste him with our mouths, grope him with our hands, and perceive him with all our senses.” Encountering that word “grope” is disconcerting. Clearly, it simply means handle or manipulate. The modern word is never used that way, and, I think, is being used less often to mean to reach or to search uncertainly (grope in the dark, grope for a word). The first meaning of “grope” that comes to my mind—and likely yours, I suspect—is, as The American Heritage Dictionary delicately puts it,“[t]o handle or fondle for sexual pleasure.” What an inappropriate meaning that would be in Cranmer’s sentence!

A confession from Lancelot Andrewes’ Private Devotions also contains a curious archaic usage. He begins (in the 1840 translation of John Henry Newman—Andrewes had a habit of writing in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew): “Merciful and pitiful Lord.” The word “pitiful” has the most obvious and straightforward meaning here—albeit a meaning lost to current usage—full of pity. The modern word, of course, means inspiring or deserving pity, perhaps due to some inadequacy. Andrewes, however, is hardly calling God inadequate!

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