Saturday, May 2, 2009

Vocabulary is baffling but beautiful

Telegram Staff Writer

People sing hymns every Sunday at church.
It's a traditional show of faith.
But does everyone know what they mean?
Probably not. Christianity's hymns take root from a massive vocabulary that spans across several cultures and centuries.
'So it's not surprising that people get confused,' said Jane Woodward, associate pastor and music minister at First United Methodist Church in Temple. 'Some words have different meanings today. Others died out.'
Ms. Woodward researched the subject and wrote an article about it for the April issue of The Word, FUMC's news magazine.
'What I learned is that you can't understand the whole meaning of the hymn until you understand each word and each phrase,' Ms. Woodward said. 'You find that the hymn is a piece of literary art, something to be appreciated.' Sue Nedry is the FUMC church member who inspired Ms. Woodward's project. She was struggling with the meaning of stanza 3 in 'All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name,' a hymn written in 1779.
'I had no idea what 'wormwood and the gall' meant,' Ms. Nedry said, referring to the line 'Sinners whose love can ne'er forget the wormwood and the gall, go spread your trophies at His feet and crown Him Lord of all.'
'I had been singing the hymn forever, but I didn't know what it meant,' Ms. Nedry said. 'So I shared that with a friend who repeated the question to (Ms. Woodward), and a few weeks later, it was all explained beautifully in the church magazine.'
Ms. Woodward learned that the wormwood and the gall are both poisonous kinds of foliage.
'One is a tree, perhaps a hemlock, and the other (gall) is a plant thought to be particularly poisonous to serpents,' Ms. Woodward said.
There's a reference to the phrase in Lamentations 3:19 of the King James Version. makes a reference to 'gall.'
'And if you read the whole chapter, you'll get a strong context for the expression,' Ms. Woodway said. 'You'll find that 'wormwood and the gall' represent our defense against evil and sin.''
Ms. Nedry said knowing that puts a whole new spin on the hymn.
The FUMC Sunday school class of Marjorie Adams struggled with 'diadem,' another word in 'All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name.' It's in the first stanza: 'Bring for the royal diadem.'
That word wasn't so hard to decipher. A diadem is a crown, and as a native of Britain, Ms. Adams could explain that to her students easily.
'But it was confusing to the youngsters,' Ms. Woodway said.
Learning the definitions of the words is worth the work, Ms. Woodway said.
'You can't get rid of the hymn to get rid of the word, and you can't replace a hard word with an easier word because that changes the poetry and theme of the hymn,' Ms. Woodway said. 'And hymns are important because they are reflections of faith throughout history.'

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