The King James Version and the Changing Use of Words

Languages change. Words fall out of use, and new words come into being. Words change in their definitions and usage, once meaning one thing and now meaning another. Grammar, syntax, even use of letters and conventions for punctuation change over time. What is clear and precise in one era can be nearly incomprehensible in another even within the same language. Consider, for example, John 3:16 in the Old English of the West Saxon gospels of 990 AD:

"God lufode middan-eard swa þt he sealde his ancennendan sunu. þt nän ne forwurðe þe on hine gelyfð. ac hæbbe þt ece lïf"

This is English, but it is English from over a thousand years ago and it is scarcely intelligible to us now even when reporting a quite familiar verse! English used letters then that we no longer use. A number of the words here are no longer part of our vocabulary. Even familiar words are often spelled so differently that we can't make them out. This was a fine translation in its day, but we can no longer use it. When language changes this radically, it's easy to recognize that we no longer understand and that we need a new translation.

Familiarity, Reverence, and Understanding

The problem often comes when the language has only moderately changed. We have a sense that we understand even when we are not really getting the point. Familiarity and sacred reverence further fuel this. Take, for example, some of the songs we sing. One of my favorite hymns of all time is "Be Though My Vision." This song is a treasure of the church and is still sung across generations, cultures, and denominational lines. Yet, because the hymn is not only so familiar but also so hallowed and beloved, many who sing it have never even paused to realize that they do not understand all of the lines. Do you know, for example, what it means to say:

"Naught be all else to me save that thou art?"

You may be saying "yes, I actually do know what that means." But do you really? Can you put it in your own words, or do you only have a vague inner sense of the meaning that you can't express? If the latter, it means that you don't actually understand the line, you merely resonate with the words. Take a few minutes and try to walk the sentence out word by word and restate it in words of your own. Can you? Many highly intelligent people who have sung the song all their lives admit that they cannot. Even if you are one of the few who were able to explain that the line means "Everything else is nothing to me unless you are [my vision]," you can probably see that the majority of people today don't really get the line. Yet, most people who sing the song never stop to realize that they don't get what lines like this are saying. Why don't they notice? How can we sing, memorize, revere, and love these words and not be aware that some of them don't make sense to us? The fact of the matter is, we fail to notice precisely because we sing them all the time and revere them. They are so familiar that we can breeze right over them and so sacred to us that we have an inner sense of meaning and worship attached to them regardless of what the words actually say. This does not mean that you don't get the overarching theme of the song as a whole. You probably understand most of the other lines, certainly enough to sing and know what you are generally trying to say to God. But if we believed that this song was the inspired word of God, as we do the Bible, we should care very much that we did not grasp every line on the page!

Changing Words and Missing Meaning

The problem, however, can be a bit more subtle. Something can seem to make perfect sense but mean something different than we think. To see this, let's take another well-known example. In the common holiday song, "Deck the Halls," we hear each year the line, "Don we now our gay apparel." In this case, while a few of the words are somewhat old-fashioned ("don" for "put on" and "apparel" for "clothing") and the sentence structure is a little abnormal by poetic license, the phrase seems generally understandable. Yet, if you were to show this song today to someone who had never heard it before, what would they think of when they heard the words "gay apparel?" Well, they would be thinking of the clothes that gay people wear. And what would they mean by "gay people?" Today, they would mean homosexual people. Most of us familiar with the song, however, know that this is not what the lyrics mean at all. Gay meant happy, merry, or in good spirits. "Gay apparel," then, meant "festive clothes." This lyric, which was added to the song in 1877, would have already changed in meaning by 1977 and has certainly lost all its original sense today. Similarly, the line "troll the ancient yuletide carol," is strange to us because to "troll" someone or something is a quite negative term today. If you tell someone today to "troll" the carol, they might make snide remarks during the song or try to distract the singers and get them off point. But, when the song was written, to "troll" was to sing merrily. The changing meanings of words can, in turn, change the meanings of phrases and sentences, wrenching them from their original sense, often without the present-day hearer or reader even realizing it.

New Definitions and Old Translations

In discussions about the King James Version and modern translations, a great deal of attention is given to archaic words. There are, of course, a number of words throughout the King James Version that are no longer used, and these can be confusing. Yet, that is not the most significant issue with using a translation in an older form of English. We easily recognize words we don't know at all and can thus look them up. This can get taxing when there are many archaic words in the same passage, but it is doable. Of far greater concern are words that are not archaic, words we still use today, but that now carry a different meaning than they did in 1611. The word itself is familiar, so one does not even realize that they are reading the verse with the wrong meaning. The translators used the correct word for readers of their day, but today the word means something different than it did then, and so a modern reader may walk away with a completely different understanding than the translator (and, more importantly, the original author) actually intended. If accurate understanding is the purpose of translating the Scriptures, it is no small matter to consider if a translation is no longer conveying the correct meaning to contemporary readers.

It would be an enormous task to document and explain every instance of an English word used in the KJV that no longer means what it did 400 years ago. Such an exhaustive list would be massive and quite daunting. A few examples, however, should suffice to demonstrate the point: