Prohibited Words

“The deadest words are the merely ‘poetic’ ones, words once alive but now embalmed long since. Some readers, seeing them only in poetry of the past and thinking of them as uncontaminated by daily handling, may believe them especially worthy of the poet’s attention. But devotion to such words or phrases…is a kind of necrophilia.” (John Frederick Nims, Western Wind, Random House (1974), 148)

“The norm for a poet’s language is the way his contemporaries talk.” T. S. Eliot

The following words ought to be prohibited in all church music because either (1) they are so overused that their effectiveness has been totally destroyed or (2) they are not used in any diction today except for hymnody.

bounteous
bountiful
plenteous
plentiful
boundless
wondrous
matchless
radiant
terrestrial
celestial
gladsome
wandering
enthroned
starry
ethereal
meadow
vale
well-spring
dew
scepter
Jehovah (this should be removed from everything, actually)
balm
the deep
spheres
crystal
pearl
golden
maiden
splendor
gild
gleam
beam
resound
ills
ails
vault
verdant
hail
lo
behold
accord
decked
clime
billow
assail
henceforth
o’er
‘twixt
doth
hast
art
wilt
-eth
-th
-est
-st
-folgd
be-
’tis
thy
thine
thee
thou
ye

Many of these words are anti-words. They subvert the entire point of words. They have ceased to signify some meaning greater than themselves. Instead of thinking of an objective idea when we hear these words, we think “hymn words” when we hear these words, because they only appear in hymns. Correlation requires real-world corollaries and these words have none. And that, more than anything else, is why you are always bored and never think about what you’re singing when you sing hymns.

2 comments

  1. Santiago · April 1, 2014

    Good post––and unfortunately very accurate. People sometimes ask me if I experienced “culture shock” when I moved to the US, and my answer is usually ‘no’, but a lot of words in this list actually represent a minor “culture shock” that I did experience when my worship on Sundays was in a different language. It’s not that I did not understand the meaning of the words, mind you, but the opposite––I understood them (from reading them in certain contexts) as archaic and outdated.

    You listed two reason for why these words ought to be prohibited in church music, and I think there is a third one––they can linguistically alienate God from the (for the lack of a better term) “average Christian.” Given the weekly catechizing by the archaic language of hymnody, an impression is given that is, as you say, subversive––God cannot be spoken to, worshiped, or sung to with common, every-day language. Talk about platonizing language.

  2. Santiago · April 1, 2014

    With that said, I do not think that because a word is outdated it must be chuck into the outer darkness––this is chronological snobbery. Christopher Hitchens, in one of my favorite essays on the subject of the English language, says this:

    “I now pluck down from my shelf the American Bible Society’s “Contemporary English Version,” which I picked up at an evangelical “Promise Keepers” rally on the Mall in Washington in 1997. Claiming to be faithful to the spirit of the King James translation, it keeps its promise in this way: “Finally, my friends, keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise. Pancake-flat: suited perhaps to a basement meeting of A.A., these words could not hope to penetrate the torpid, resistant fog in the mind of a 16-year-old boy, as their original had done for me.” (When the King Saved God, Vanity Fair, 2011)

    Flattening language can cause as many problems as doping it with archaic steroids, even if the problems are different. What do you think is the balance, John?

    To put it differently: form & content. Right? I mean, it is an entirely different experience to attend Sunday worship at Mars Hill in Seattle instead of worshiping inside a Gothic cathedral.

    Your turn. Think aloud back.

Think aloud.

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