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March 31, 2012 / CB

God’s Spell

About a third of all the average, everyday words we use are descended straight from Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons.  They weren’t the first inhabitants of England by any stretch, but their impact on the language was dramatic.  It’s from them that we get words like “I” (Ic), “speak” (sprecan), and “am” (eom), plus whole phrases like “day and night” (dagum ond nihtum).  I’ve known this for a long time because, well, I’m a word geek.  What I didn’t know until recently was that “gospel” is an Old English word as well.

I picked up this bit of erudition from a book I’m reading called From Homer to Harry Potter.  Ostensibly, it’s a study of ancient influences on modern writing.  80 or so pages in though, the authors have spent most of the time talking about C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, the meaning of myth, and the Bible.  Tucked in and amongst all that is this tidbit:

“In Old English, however, the word spell had a somewhat different meaning.  Originally the word spell meant “story.”  Hence, gód spell is “good story”–the close translation of the Greek euangelion, or “good message.”  Thus, when Christians came to England, they called the euangelion the gód spell, which later became the gospel: the good story.” (pg. 55)

I find this totally fascinating.  First off, to think that “spell” had nothing to do with magic and everything to do with words is wonderfully interesting.  Of course, in that understanding, it’s not so difficult to see how it gained its modern definition.  Stories have long been talked about as “casting a spell” on the reader, and that was probably no more true than in the days when tales were not written but memorized and recited (the Anglo-Saxons had no written language originally).  The poet’s words probably did seem like magic as they conjured up images and ideas in the audience’s mind.  Skip ahead to Harry Potter using “wingardium leviosa” to float a feather, and it seems not much has really changed.  Words are still being used to affect the world around the speaker.

And what have the Gospels done if they haven’t changed the world around them?  Led largely by the stories of Christ told through Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John, the Bible is unquestionably the most influential book of the last two millennia.  Art and music, literature and law, you name an element of Western culture and there are Biblical influences to be found.  Such historical considerations pale in comparison to the lives which have been changed, including my own, because they heard God’s good story.

God spoke the world into being, and when His Word became flesh, He opened salvation to us all.  That may not be magic in the Hogwarts sense, but it is surely the most fantastic of all spells.

Two quick side-notes:

1.  The Greek euangelion becomes, through a Middle English detour, our modern “evangelist”, someone who preaches the gospel.

2.  Old English was a wonderful language and one that sounds completely different from its modern progeny.  Here’s a bit of Beowulf to give you an idea.


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