On correct meanings and “dusty old words”

As any frequent reader here should have picked up on by now, I hate false etymologies. I hate to say it, but the study of word origins has been co-opted for so many ill purposes (the infamous argumentum ad etymologia), and I despise that given that I enjoy the study so much.

So I’m especially irritated to see Graham Kendrick, a well-known Christian worship songwriter, make a statement like this:

Orthodoxy sounds like a dusty old word, but actually it means right glory, in other words representing God as he actually is.

There may be a nugget of truth in here: the Greek doxa, from which the word is derived (along with ortho, “correct”), is sometimes translated as “glory” or “praise” (c.f. Matthew 4:8). And in a sense, I think I can give Kendrick a little bit of poetic license, since orthodoxy may have at its roots a desire to glorify God by accurately representing Him. That’s fine, but the word “orthodox” doesn’t mean that – it means “correct belief.”

The OED says this regarding etymology:

[< post-classical Latin orthodoxus, ortodoxus, adjective and noun (4th cent.; freq. in Jerome) and its etymon Hellenistic or Byzantine Greek òρθóδοξος right in opinion (see note), person holding a right opinion < ancient Greek òοθο- ORTHO- comb. form + δóξα opinion, glory (see DOXOLOGY n.). In English perhaps partly via Middle French, French orthodoxe (1431 as adjective, a1565 as noun). Compare Italian ortodosso (1478 as adjective).
Ancient Greek òρθοδοξεîν ‘to have a right opinion’ appears first in Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics, but remains rare. The cognate noun òρθοδοξíα appears first in Origen; the adjective óρθóδοξος does not appear until the late 3rd, or early 4th cent. With the exception of uses in commentaries on Nicomachean Ethics the group of words is restricted almost entirely to Christian writers.] [Ed. Greek characters should now display correctly]

So the usage existed prior to the Greek writings of the NT, and certainly one cannot say that orthodoxy does not today refer to belief, not to glory of praise.

Finally, a note: words, like books, don’t get dusty if they are used, and orthodox has been in great use for centuries now, thanks in large part to the insistence of religious organizations’ desire to see correct belief (i.e. adherence to their doctrines) among those who associate themselves with the organization. What Kendrick seems to be doing here is setting up orthodox as an elitist word, high and lofty and out of the comprehension of the common man. This is of course untrue; orthodoxy is easily understood by anyone who has been introduced to the idea of believing in the right things.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: