A Sincere Wax Job

[From the archives.]

Putting a Coat of Wax on False Etymologies

Sometimes people can use these word origins to help us understand spiritual matters. Like you’ll be hearing a sermon and they tell you, “In Isaiah 7:14, the original Hebrew word ‘Immanuel’ means ‘God with us.'” Of course it doesn’t take a PhD in linguistics to figure that one out since Matthew already did the heavy lifting for us, but you get what I mean.

Folks can get carried away with this, though. I once heard a sermon where the concept of sincerity came up, probably from a passage like 2 Timothy 1:5 (“I am reminded of your sincere faith”) or something similar.

The speaker said that sincere came from the Latin sin meaning “without” and cere meaning “wax”. Those connections line right up with my knowledge of Spanish and I figured the relation back to Latin must be easy to trace. The speaker then went on to explain that people used the Latin back in New Testament times to refer to clay pots: if a pot was cracked it could be patched up with wax and sold in the market with no one the wiser until they took it home and found it leaked and wouldn’t hold water.

Supposedly, shoppers wised up and started asking if the pots on sale were without wax, that is, were they sincere. The point, the speaker said, was that our faith should be sincere, our faith should hold water.

I loved it. I bought it. I was just waiting for the chance to use it in a lesson of my own as soon as possible.

I shouldn’t have bought it.

I should have asked myself “Who cares what the origin of the English word sincere is when getting at the meaning of the Bible’s original text? The Bible wasn’t written in English!” But I didn’t bother to think of that then. Happily I did take time to look it up before using it.

Here’s what I found: Sincere is from Latin, that’s true. But the Latin sin in this case is from an earlier Latin prefix sem which means “one”. Cere is the root of the Latin crescere which means “to grow”.

Sincere doesn’t mean “without wax”; it means “from a single growth”, i.e., not duplicitous or mixed up.

It pays to look things up sometimes, because the speaker’s false etymology didn’t hold water.

True Words

It’s clear that I love words, and getting them right is important to me.

One thing I really love about words is that they are a gift from God. God the Son is the Word himself and all real expression – expression that reflects the eternal significance of reality – comes through him. (John 1.)

And I also love words because that’s how God delivers his message to us today, the message of good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Timothy 1:8-10.)

And I love the fact that truth is the very essence of God’s word:

For the word of the Lord is right and true. (Psalm 33:4.)

That’s why I love words.


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12 Responses to A Sincere Wax Job

  1. Love how you weaved your word study together from one thought to another. Do you go on rabbit trails in your court room also, or just save it for your train wreck blog?

    Love words too. Started collecting the common ones to use in raps. Love to play Words With Friends on Facebook so I can collect more words. Now I guess I will have to go one step farther as you have and look up the origin of those words.

    • Tim says:

      I think the attorneys sometimes wonder where I’m going with my questions from the bench, but I really do have an idea where I’m headed (usually). With this blog, and over coffee with a friend, or just about anywhere but work, rabbit trails are a blast!

  2. Nick says:

    I relate to this one, Tim – I was about 5 seconds away the other day, after reading a compelling article, from tweeting something embarrassing (I won’t disclose its terrible contents, but it did have the word “Pope” and “Anti-Christ” in it). But just before clicking, I decided to check the sources on the article, and turns out…it was a hoax. Be a Berean!

  3. Aimee Byrd says:

    Great reminder and Tim, your love of words is contagious. Along with what Nick said, I have been so puzzled by the amount of articles I’ve seen shared on FB that are obviously over-the-top. One click on Snopes debunks. The latest was a supposed announcement from John’s Hopkins on how cancer can now be cured by the proper diet. JH even had to release a statement that it was a fraud. Snopes before sharing!

    • Tim says:

      I’ve looked things up on Snopes and then forwarded the link to people who have sent me some over-the-top story in order to give them a heads up, and sometimes the response has been somewhat resentful along the lines of “Well it’s still a good idea to be careful so this is a good article to keep passing along.”

      When it comes to loving words, often when I read your reading reflection posts on your blog I have to look up the meaning of a word I’ve never seen before. You smartify me all the time, Aimee!


  4. Bronwyn Lea says:

    I remember the sincere explanation. Thanks for clearing that up!!

  5. joepote01 says:

    I love this post! Like you, I love words and word origins. I also love digging into biblical word usage to better understand original texts.

    And like you I had heard this same false etymology “without wax.”

    Thank you for both the clarification and the warning.

    I especially like this part: “I should have asked myself ‘Who cares what the origin of the English word sincere is when getting at the meaning of the Bible’s original text? The Bible wasn’t written in English!'”

    Sometimes, it is all too easy to get sucked into the explanation. We have to back off and look at the bigger picture. And we must pursue a better understanding of the original intent of the original text within the context of the passage…as well as the historical and cultural context (as best as we can understand it).

    • Tim says:

      Those explanations are sometimes presented so attractively – glibly even – that it’s hard not to get sucked in, Joe. I’m glad we have resources at hand to dig deeper.

  6. Bad entomology really bugs me.

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