“Say the word …. Say the word!” That was the command given by the Gileadite soldiers to every man whom they saw trying to cross the Jordan River. “Say the word.”
Around 1100 b.c., the Gileadites were at war with a neighboring tribe called the Ephraimites. This war started after the Gileadites had gone to battle against another nearby nation—the nation of Ammon. Gilead defeated Ammon, and when the Ephraimites heard about it, they were upset that they had not been called upon to help fight and share in that victory.
The dispute escalated, and before long, the Ephraimite army crossed over the Jordan River to go to war against Gilead!
The Gileadites were more powerful, and they quickly defeated the men of Ephraim. The Ephraimites ended up breaking rank and fleeing in all directions from the Gileadite soldiers. As they fled, the Gileadites wanted to catch as many Ephraimites as possible. Their leader stationed soldiers all along the Jordan—at any place where there was a bridge or the river was shallow enough to ford—to capture any Ephraimites who tried to flee back to their home territory.
Every time the Gileadites saw a man trying to cross the river, they would stop him and ask which side he was on. If a man admitted to being an Ephraimite, they would kill him on the spot. Once they caught wind of this trick, many Ephraimites denied who they were.
This presented the Gileadites with a problem: They couldn’t tell if their captive was telling the truth or not. Both the Gileadites and the Ephraimites were Semitic tribes who had descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were basically brother nations, and they looked like the same people. If one of the Ephraimites said, “No, I’m not an Ephraimite; I’m one of you!” the Gileadites couldn’t really dispute it.
Before long, however, the Gileadites came up with a test—a simple way to verify if each man they caught was telling the truth or not. These two tribes both spoke an ancient version of Hebrew, and they spoke it very similarly, but there was one consonant sound that they pronounced differently. So, when the Gileadite soldiers caught a man trying to cross the river, they would put a sword to his throat, and tell him: “Say the word! Say the word … shibboleth!”
In ancient Hebrew dialects, “shibboleth” means “ear of grain.” It would have been a common agricultural term—a word that both the Gileadites and Ephraimites used regularly. The Gileadites pronounced it with an sh sound—shibboleth—while the Ephraimites pronounced it with an s sound—sibboleth. The Ephraimites were apparently unable to say sh because of their dialect.
As soon as the Gileadites heard a man say it with an sh sound—shibboleth—they would say, “Carry on, good sir! Enjoy your time on the east side of the river!” But if one of the would-be river crossers said it the wrong way—with an s sound—they immediately knew that he was one of the fleeing Ephraimite soldiers, and they would slay him where he stood. The Gileadites were able to identify and kill thousands of enemy soldiers by this pronunciation test!
As a result of this story—found in Judges 12—the word shibboleth is still used to this day! Today, the word basically means a linguistic password—a word that tags you as being inside a certain group if you know it and outside that group if you don’t know it. Merriam-Webster defines it as a “word or way of speaking or behaving which shows that a person belongs to a particular group.”
An example of a modern shibboleth in the English language is the pronunciation of the last letter of the alphabet. Americans pronounce it “Zee,” but pretty much all the other English speakers pronounce it “Zed.” During the 1950s and 60s, young men in Canada were asked to pronounce the letter “Z” to see if they were truly Canadians or if they were Americans who were hiding in Canada to dodge the military draft.
“Z”—or “Zed”—became a pretty useful shibboleth!
Shibboleth—and thousands of words like it—are fascinating because of their history and etymology. Studying such words will widen your vocabulary, and widening your vocabulary will deepen your love for your language and will help you communicate more effectively. This is important because God’s Work is here to communicate to the entire world, and you are here to support God’s Work! Thus, expanding your vocabulary and learning to love and use your language is crucial to your support of God’s Work.
The Importance of Vocabulary
In a sermon during the 2017 Philadelphia Youth Camp, Pastor General Gerald Flurry delivered seven points on how to build leadership skills. Number three on the list was “Learn to love and use your own language.” Mr. Flurry said, “We have so much to communicate. We have everything to communicate! [Y]ou need to really learn your language and love it and keep improving in it all your life.”
This is a practical and valuable bit of advice. In order to hone our leadership abilities and improve our interpersonal relationships—and even clarify our thoughts—we have to ameliorate our language skills!
Ameliorate, by the way, just means to improve. I found a good way to remember that one: Amelia Earhart, the famous aviator, improved—or ameliorated—the status of women in the field of aviation. Amelia ameliorated.
Vocabulary is foundational. You can master all the literary devices in the world—you can study the arts of analogy, antithesis and allegory—but if your storehouse of words is limited, then your dexterity with all of these devices will be equally limited. Words are the foundation, and the more of them you know well enough—not just to recognize in reading, but to use while speaking and writing—the more successful all of your communication efforts will be.
A book entitled 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, by Wilfred Funk, says this about words: “Words are the tools of thinking. It naturally follows, then, that the more words you have at your command, the clearer and more accurate your thinking will be.
“Words are your medium of exchange, the coin with which you do business with all those around you. With words, you relate to people, communicate your feelings and thoughts to them, influence them, persuade them …. In short, through words you shape your own destiny. For your words are your personality; your vocabulary is you.”
We should make words our allies—our friends and companions.
One excellent way to build your vocabulary into an expansive, voluminous and variegated collection is to learn how to recognize roots. For example, let’s look at the root of the word “companion.”
“Com” is from the Latin word meaning “with.” “Panis” comes from the Latin word for “bread.” Therefore, someone who is your “companion” is someone you eat bread with! If you take a gander at words like company and accompaniment, you’ll find that they are also built on these same two Latin root words.
If you have expanded your knowledge of root words, you can figure out the meaning of a long and intimidating word simply by breaking it down to its roots. For example, I once asked a friend with a vast vocabulary if he knew what the word “circumlocution” meant. He said, “Well, let me think. I’ve never looked that one up. I’m not familiar with it, but, I know ‘circum’ means ‘around’—if someone circumnavigates the world, they sail around it. The circumference of a circle is the distance around the outside of it.”
My friend then considered the rest of the word and said, “The next thing you see is ‘locution.’ I recognize the root ‘loq’ from words like elocution (which means public speaking), eloquence, loquacious, ventriloquist—the guy who speaks through his puppet—so locution, must mean ‘speaking.’
“OK,” my friend said. “Circumlocution must mean ‘speaking around,’ or roundabout, rambling language—using too many words to express a thought!”
My language-loving friend was exactly right, and I was thunderstruck by the manner in which he reasoned his way to the definition of such a long and obscure word—a word that he had not previously been familiar with. He did it just by parsing the word to its roots.
Another interesting root is “luna.” Luna is a Latin root meaning “moon.” Of course, you see it in the English word “lunar,” as in a lunar, or moon-based, calendar. But you also see that root in the word “lunatic.” We use that word in modern times to describe someone who’s acting crazy, but the word lunatic originated from the belief that insanity was caused by changes in the moon.
Now, if you would, please take a look at your fingernail. At the base of it, do you see that little crescent-moon-shaped, lighter-colored segment? That is called the lunula! It’s named that because of its moon-like shape.
The English language is rich and descriptive. We have words for almost everything, and we are adding new words to the English language every year. There are more words than anyone could ever really learn, but learning to recognize roots will help you immensely!
Trite Through Overuse
Another excellent way to improve your use of language is to be on the lookout for words and phrases you overuse.
Think about this: You’re taking a hike to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, and one of your hiking companions offers you a cookie on the way. It tastes great to you, so you say, “This cookie is awesome.” Then, as you are hiking along, one of your other friends insists that you borrow his phone to listen to a new pop song. The song ends, and you thought it was pretty catchy, so you say, “Thanks—that was awesome.” You keep on hiking, and the roar of the Falls is getting stronger and stronger. It is beginning to literally shake the ground under your feet. You burst through the tree line, and there you are—standing on the cusp of Victoria Falls. Your eyes widen at the majesty of the scene. 300,000 gallons of water per second battering the earth, and you are overwhelmed by the sheer power on display. You feel almost faint, hearing the perpetual crash, feeling the mist on your face and the trembling planet beneath you. As you behold the stunning splendor, you want to say something about this experience, so you say: “This is awesome.”
In that scenario, the word doesn’t mean what it should. It doesn’t do justice to the majestic sight you are beholding, and it is not by any fault of the word. Awesome is the right word for that experience, but since you have overused it—and actually misused it—it has been weakened and enfeebled. The overuse has stripped the word of its power!
You are left with nothing in your storehouse of words to describe what you’re experiencing. All you can do is say, “This is really, really, really awesome,” which is not really a compelling way to describe the largest waterfall on Earth.
It is an easy trap for any of us to fall into. We begin to feel comfortable with words like amazing, epic and awesome, and we start using them too much. But if you always describe everything as an 11 even if it is only a three or a four, then what options remain when you encounter an actual 11?
One practical thing you might consider is challenging yourself to become comfortable using some new words to convey your excitement or appreciation in a given situation. Think about words like: “remarkable,” “stellar,” “impressive,” “compelling,” “enriching,” “iconic,” “transcendent,” “impressive”—the list goes on and on.
Most native English speakers will easily recognize all of these words, but they are a bit more special than overused words like “awesome.” It may not feel natural the first few times you use these words, but as you become more familiar with them, you will feel comfortable with them, and they will help you to avoid that trap of overusing certain words and terms. They will help avoid overspending—spending an 11-dollar word when you only owe a 2- or 3-dollar word.
To improve your use of words, both in writing and speaking, here is one more excellent and fairly straightforward tip: Vary your sentence length.
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.”
That is a passage from 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing: Proven Professional Techniques for Writing With Style and Power by American author Gary Provost. If you challenge yourself to vary the length of your sentences as he suggests, you will please your reader’s ear—or your listener’s ear, if you are speaking—and you’ll be better able to communicate your message. And, as Mr. Flurry said in his sermon, communicating your message—especially if it is in support of God’s Work—is what it is all about. That should be your main motivation for learning to love and use your language.
That means that if you are a logophile—or one who loves words (“logo” meaning “word” and “phile” meaning “one who loves”)—then it’s crucial to remember that learning to love and use your language does not mean running around talking about the serendipitous circumlocutor with misshapen lunula. If you use language to showcase your intellect and to show off your superior vocabulary—if you use language in a vain manner—then you will fail to accomplish that fundamental purpose of language: communication. You will fail to get through to people. God’s Work is all about reaching the largest audience possible. Use the skills you develop to help people understand what you are communicating rather than hinder them.
Herbert W. Armstrong included an example in his Autobiography about the perils of using language to showcase your intellect.
When he was in his late teen years, Mr. Armstrong read about a writer named Elbert Hubbard who claimed to have the largest vocabulary of anyone alive at the time. The young Mr. Armstrong thought that sounded impressive, so he made it his goal to surpass Mr. Hubbard.
Here is what Mr. Armstrong wrote about his goal: “Ever since I had read Elbert Hubbard’s boast of possessing the largest vocabulary of any man since Shakespeare, it had been a challenge! I was determined to acquire a greater! To be able to pour out a torrent of big words incomprehensible to any but the highly educated had appealed to [my] intellectual vanity.”
A few years later, when Mr. Armstrong was employed at a local advertising company to write advertisements, he had to learn that good communication was not about trying to impress people or about flaunting your education. Advertisements were only effective when they conveyed thoughts clearly. He learned that intellectual vanity was a major obstacle hindering that effective communication. After learning these things, he made a conscious decision to simplify his vocabulary.
“My effort, then, became that of developing ability to use the largest variety of words readily comprehensible by most people when heard or read .… Immediately I set out to develop a distinct and effective style. It had to be fast-moving, vigorous, yet simple, interesting, making the message plain and understandable.”
Mr. Armstrong did not stop developing his English skills. He started to develop them more than ever! But he learned to love and use his language in order to communicate more effectively rather than in a manner that proved his intelligence.
Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” If you learn to love and use your language as Mr. Flurry admonished, you will be able to communicate more effectively, and you will be able to better support God’s Work in its commission of communicating effectively to the whole world.