“Anglo-Saxon ad infinitum”

By Rev. Dr. Paul Raybon

One of my very favorite people, a long-time lay leader, is a retired teacher who, when she gets really mad, will exclaim “Anglo-Saxon ad infinitum.” Because as we all know, all the best curse words are Anglo-Saxon. Put another way, how many people yell “excrement” when they hit their thumb with a hammer?

What does that have to do with choosing the best word in ministry? We need to remember that although a Latinate word may sound very “erudite” and may even be the most “precise,” it may not connect with people. Not because of anyone’s level of education, but because fifty cent words are a step removed from the deepest of human experience. Don’t take my word for it. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (which should be on your shelf) says “Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words.” Or as my wife and chief editor reminds me, often, “Never use “utilize” when you can use “use.”

Occasionally I have reason to look at papers I wrote when I was in seminary (because I knew so much more then). It always strikes me that I have not used most of the terminology in those papers since I finished my master’s degree. It’s not that those words aren’t perfectly suited to communicate complex ideas as precisely as possible. It’s just that real people don’t talk that way, and if they don’t talk that way, they don’t listen that way either. So, if you want to help people to feel it in their gut, don’t use “intestines.” If you want people to understand depravity, use “evil.” The next time you come away from a powerful theological treatise or Biblical commentary with something you must pass along, do your best to translate into Anglo-Saxon. You won’t be sārig!

FYI: List of English words of Anglo-Saxon origin

These thoughts are from Rev. Dr. Paul Raybon, our partner in ministry in the Western Carolinas, who can help you and your ministry navigate congregational unity and effectiveness. He is Associate Pastor at Hominy Baptist Church near Asheville, NC and works with churches and leaders as a coach and consultant in communication, visioning, administration, and spiritual formation. Contact him for more information about how he can help you.

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