The Return of Coverdale
Last week we took a look at compound words first written down by Myles Coverdale, who gave the world its first complete English Bible. This week we’ll take a look at a few other words for which Coverdale is given credit.
Though the word anoint was used in English as early as the 1300s, it simply meant smeared on. Coverdale was the first to use anoint in writing in its spiritual sense of choose or consecrate. Before this, it seems anoint was a word used exclusively to refer to medical treatments involving smearing a substance over a compromised area, like – oh, let’s say – a skin condition.
That brings us to the word leprosy, which appears to have been born in the Coverdale Bible. The Hebrew & Latin words in earlier versions were less specific, & could be translated as broadly as skin diseases, but Coverdale chose to represent those general skin diseases by Anglicizing the Greek word lepra, which meant scaly, but was also used to refer to the very specific skin disease now known as Hansen’s disease (named after the researcher who discovered the bacillus that causes the condition).
Though the original Hebrew of the Old Testament employed a word meaning resin, when it came to the ____ of Gilead, Coverdale chose the word balm, giving a common term of the time two new meanings. In the 1500s, the word balm was used to define an aromatic mixture of resins & oils. Coverdale’s use of it gave birth to both the physically soothing effect of things that smelled good, & the idea that a degree of spiritual enlightenment could bring about a similarly pleasing effect.
Swaddling was born of the Old English word swathian, to bind or bandage. One of the customs of the centuries pre-dating Coverdale involved binding infants’ limbs, as it was believed that not doing so could lead to deformity (we humans come up with some pretty wonky ideas, don’t we?). It’s unclear whether Coverdale imagined the baby Jesus’ limbs tightly bound or whether the term swaddling clothes had been generalized by then to refer to a baby’s blanket.
Though many might guess that the more violent meaning of the word lick was coined by the likes of Mark Twain, linguists attribute it to Coverdale. To lick, meaning to annihilate, defeat or beat, first appeared in Coverdale’s translation of the Bible.
Good readers, had any of you wondered about swaddling, lick, leprosy, balm or anoint, or had these words escaped your curiosity? Please leave a comment.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Etymonline, English Bible History & Wordnik
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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