[From the archives.]
Putting a Coat of Wax on False Etymologies
Sometimes people can use these word origins to help us understand spiritual matters. Like you’ll be hearing a sermon and they tell you, “In Isaiah 7:14, the original Hebrew word ‘Immanuel’ means ‘God with us.'” Of course it doesn’t take a PhD in linguistics to figure that one out since Matthew already did the heavy lifting for us, but you get what I mean.
Folks can get carried away with this, though. I once heard a sermon where the concept of sincerity came up, probably from a passage like 2 Timothy 1:5 (“I am reminded of your sincere faith”) or something similar.
The speaker said that sincere came from the Latin sin meaning “without” and cere meaning “wax”. Those connections line right up with my knowledge of Spanish and I figured the relation back to Latin must be easy to trace. The speaker then went on to explain that people used the Latin back in New Testament times to refer to clay pots: if a pot was cracked it could be patched up with wax and sold in the market with no one the wiser until they took it home and found it leaked and wouldn’t hold water.
Supposedly, shoppers wised up and started asking if the pots on sale were without wax, that is, were they sincere. The point, the speaker said, was that our faith should be sincere, our faith should hold water.
I loved it. I bought it. I was just waiting for the chance to use it in a lesson of my own as soon as possible.
I shouldn’t have bought it.
I should have asked myself “Who cares what the origin of the English word sincere is when getting at the meaning of the Bible’s original text? The Bible wasn’t written in English!” But I didn’t bother to think of that then. Happily I did take time to look it up before using it.
Here’s what I found: Sincere is from Latin, that’s true. But the Latin sin in this case is from an earlier Latin prefix sem which means “one”. Cere is the root of the Latin crescere which means “to grow”.
Sincere doesn’t mean “without wax”; it means “from a single growth”, i.e., not duplicitous or mixed up.
It pays to look things up sometimes, because the speaker’s false etymology didn’t hold water.
It’s clear that I love words, and getting them right is important to me.
One thing I really love about words is that they are a gift from God. God the Son is the Word himself and all real expression – expression that reflects the eternal significance of reality – comes through him. (John 1.)
And I also love words because that’s how God delivers his message to us today, the message of good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Timothy 1:8-10.)
And I love the fact that truth is the very essence of God’s word:
For the word of the Lord is right and true. (Psalm 33:4.)
That’s why I love words.