Saturday, January 22, 2005


Concrete Confusion

When is a mistake not a mistake? In language at least, the answer is, “When everyone adopts it,” and on rare occasions, “When it's in the dictionary.” The word internecine presents a case in point.
Today, it usually has the meaning “relating to internal struggle,” but in its first recorded use in English, in 1663, it meant “fought to the death.” How it got from one sense to another is an interesting story in the history of English.

The Latin source of the word, spelled both internecnus and internecvus, meant “fought to the death, murderous.” It is a derivative of the verb necre, “to kill.” The prefix inter- was here used not in the usual sense “between, mutual” but rather as an intensifier meaning “all the way, to the death.”

This piece of knowledge was unknown to Samuel Johnson, however, when he was working on his great dictionary in the 18th century. He included internecine in his dictionary but misunderstood the prefix and defined the word as “endeavoring mutual destruction.”

Johnson was not taken to task for this error. On the contrary, his dictionary was so popular and considered so authoritative that this error became widely adopted as correct usage. The error was further compounded when internecine acquired the sense “relating to internal struggle.”

This story thus illustrates how dictionaries are often viewed as providing norms and how the ultimate arbiter in language, even for the dictionary itself, is popular usage.
The above is from

Church history is full of examples of the acceptance of a biblical truth which is not biblical at all; "cleanliness is next to godliness," for example.


Kevin Harper said...

Great illustration, and you're right that Christianity is replete with examples of this.

One is the word "church." The Greek ekklesia meant "the called out," and was used to speak of an assembly of citizens.

Now, however, we use it to speak of organizations and institutions, rather than the assembled individuals.

I've encouraged friends and family to try this: Read through the entire New Testament scriptures substituting the words "called out" for the word "church." It's amazing the new truth that can be discovered in how we think about "the church."

J. A. Gillmartin said...

Kevin -

Thanks, I thought so too!

And thanks for the thoughts on the "called out" ... would you mind if I used that in the Crib's Inspiration Blog?

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