What in the Name of God?

Seems I’ve noted a disturbing language trend. Of course, it’s been going on for who-knows-how-many years; I’ve just finally decided to give it a great deal of consideration. It may be becoming another item on my list of personal pet peeves! 🙂

Perhaps among the most abused words in America:  “Holy.”

To begin with defining examples, we have Holy Scriptures/Holy Bible/Holy Quran as Divinely inspired religious writings. Matrimony is deemed holy when a wedding is performed and the participants invite the presence of God to witness sacred vows. At times, the ground was described as holy, and Moses had to remove his shoes. “Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” Exodus 3:5, NKJV.  The third person of the Trinity is designated as Holy Spirit. Hallowed, as in the Lord’s Prayer, can be translated as holy. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word YHWH (LORD in the Christian Scriptures) was capitalized because His name was so revered and HOLY.

Merriam-Webster’s take:

Definition of HOLY

: exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness
: divine
: devoted entirely to the deity or the work of the deity
a : having a divine quality <holy love.b : venerated as or as if sacred 
—used as an intensive ; often used in combination as a mild oath

Notice the first four definitions have to do with Divinity.
And then, along comes the pollution of the word in the fifth definition And that is exactly my point. Most of us grew up hearing, “Holy cow!”, though in American culture bovines rarely are perceived as divine. Other countries may have a different opinion; yet endowing the creature with sainted attributes from the Divine. Full respect is given to the creature.

Holy smoke? Perhaps the incense that ascended with the prayers of the ancient Israelites? It is quite doubtful that anyone using that term today is remembering the sanctuary or the temple.

In my opinion, the basest denigration of all:  The use of holy teamed with the slang word used for excrement. I can’t even write it, here.

I’m as shamefully guilty as anyone else, regarding misusing this word, I most heartily apologize to my Lord God. I’m determined to become more sensitive regarding the language I use – and certainly when using an adjective most connected with the character of the Almighty.

I’m thinking that when we use this word as descriptive slang, we actually mean just the opposite:  “unholy”. Unholy mess? Unholy terror? Is it language laziness, then?</div>

Our language, as well as most things in life, should be more carefully considered and given the respect it deserves. How much more so our language to and about our Holy God.

One of my favorite hymns that inspires reverence and awe in my heart and spirit is noted, below. Wonderful to sing or just to listen…and, oh, what great scenes my imagination can envision!

Holy, holy, is what the angels sing,
And I expect to help them make the courts of heaven ring;
But when I sing redemption’s story, they will fold their wings,
For angels never felt the joys that our salvation brings.
Holy, Holy is What the Angels Sing
  Lyrics:  Johnson Oatman, Jr.  Music:  John R. Sweney


~ by saginawrobin on February 7, 2013.

5 Responses to “What in the Name of God?”

  1. You’re right. I’ve never given the ‘holy’ phrases a good look like you’ve helped me to do here. I think there are a ton of words that are originally tied back to God that have changed over the years. ‘Holy’ is one of those, and you really can’t get around the meaning. ‘Good’ is a little more vague. All good things come from God, but we don’t think of that or define goodness that way anymore.

    I’ve been reading “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” with my kids, and the Puritan characters’ speeches are often coupled with religious phrases. I have no doubt the author wants the reader to infer that the character actually means it, but my kids have stopped our reading repeatedly to ask if I should be reading a certain phrase aloud to them. I can’t tell you how that touches my heart–to know that they are developing a respectful regard for the attributes of God!

    This is an excellent reminder. Thanks so much, Robin.

  2. Funny how we get desensitized and don’t even realize it for a long time. Kids are good reminders, aren’t they? My oldest was about 14 and wanted to watch an R-rated movie with me. I told him it “wasn’t appropriate for kids.” He then zapped me with, “Then it probably isn’t appropriate for adults, either.” Ouch.

  3. Awe, looks like you had to repost, instead of update. So, I’ll just repost my original reply, with a little extra (including a new word, for me)….
    As for your post, I would disagree, for the most part. Defining a word to only have one definition would be counter to much of our language. It is up to the speaker (or writer) to deliver sounds that result in the recipient understanding their meaning based on their context. These are homonyms. For example, “left” could be used to indicate a side of the body, a political view, or state of travel (past tense of “leave”). If someone were to say, “Holy semantics, Batman!” you understand the reference and meaning. It is not a call for God to correct his gramar.
    But that also extends to translations of the Bible, one of my pet peeves. This blogger talks about why none of them are the one: (http://www.gentlewisdom.org/3262/literal-bible-translations-crutches-for-bad-teachers/ ), a good read. It indirectly points out God’s words were not delivered in English; they were delivered by meaning in Hebrew, Aramaic, and, New Testament, in Greek. Unless you are fluent in those languages and the dialect of whomever scribed the communication, you cannot fully understand what the writer heard and what he meant to convey.
    My point is not that the use of “Holy” is bad or good, but rather, the use of “Holy” when communicating with you, should take into consideration your potential interpretation. And, when the receiver’s interpretation does not match the definition meant by the presenter, the communication has failed.

    And to add to that conversation, this brings me to a new term I just learned “capitonym” (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitonym). This means a distinct definition based on capitalization of a term (homonym or heteronym). For example, in writing, the term “He” versus “he” is clearly evident. However, when spoken, we mere mortals can struggle to distinguish between a reference to God or brother. These terms are found throughout our language. The significant emphasis is to “our”; because the use of capitalization as divine worship is not universal. Some languages, such as German, Italian, and others, capitalize pronouns as well, “Lei” (formal Italian “she”). Is this the case here, the use of “Holy” to represent sanctity vs “holy” as an exclamation?

    • Thanks for adding your reply once again, Bud. You’re right, updating did not change anything insofar as the format, so I just manually erased. I see I missed a couple, though! I understand your point regarding capitalization. I studied Spanish and just a bit of German, so I do remember that German nouns and pronouns are all capitalized, not just what we call “proper” nouns. Spoken language cannot convey the difference between holy and Holy. If you do not mean disrespect, then perhaps you are not in the wrong; having said that, perhaps many other people do see a difference between holy and Holy, even when spoken, in the context of God. Another example would be “bible”. I think when referring to Scripture (notice my cap!), it is correct to write Bible. However, if you’re speaking of a tome for cooking, then perhaps a culinary bible would be correct? I also would write God, when speaking of (my) God, rather than god, which to me, denotes a literary idol, called a god. (Greek gods, Zeus, Apollo, Athena, etc) Smaller case may refer to anything or any idol that is given worship, or at least high praise. To the Abrahamic religions, God is one of the names given to the Creator. To us, it does not denote that He may be one of a thousand fictional gods, nor used tongue-in-cheek, as in ability. I believe that the translators of the Bible tried to keep true to the way in which God Almighty/Creator was referred. That included capitals.

      A last point is the word, “Sabbath.” In Scripture, there is the Sabbath (4th commandment, Exodus 20:8-11), and then there are “sabbaths.” One is a holy day, and the others are celebrations, but perhaps not of a holy nature. Leviticus 26:2 You shall keep My Sabbaths and reverence My sanctuary: I [am] the LORD.
      Lev 26:34 Then the land shall enjoy its sabbaths as long as it lies desolate and you [are] in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest and enjoy its sabbaths.
      Sabbath means rest, either ordained command by God, or a general resting, as in allowing the land to rest (sabbath).

      Wholly cow, Budman, does this clarify or just make the water muddier? 😀

  4. […] situation to see something beautiful. One of my favorite posts of hers is My Sisters’ Feet, and What in the Name of God? got me thinking about what comes out of my mouth. I also have to mention her poem, Spam Fan I Am […]

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