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Proof of what is unseen

A False Friend (Kind of) in Shakespeare

Mark Ward

I’m a fan of the music of Philip Glass. It’s the Western classical tradition stripped down to its essentials: triad after exciting triad (until it gets old, which it sometimes does, but listen to the composer play Mad Rush and tell me if the repetition gets old!). My introduction to Glass was through my brilliant cinephilic friend Elijah W. and the profound, wordless documentary (?) Koyaanisqatsi. Good stuff.

I was excited recently when Spotify notified me that a recording of new Glass music—Glass has been an active composer since the 1960s—had just been released. In this case, it was music he wrote for a Broadway production of King Lear. A few of the pieces contain some lyrics, delivered in a rough Cockney by an actress/singer. The words are straight from Shakespeare, and they include this rhyming couplet:

Fortune, that arrant whore, / Ne’er turns the key to th’ poor.

I suddenly realized that 1) I didn’t know what arrant means because 2) I had only ever heard it as part of the phrase “arrant nonsense” (or something like it, like “arrant stupidity”) or “knights arrant,” a phrase in which the word means nothing to me.

The NOW English corpus

I checked the NOW corpus, my favorite place to do this kind of work (read: it is free), and sure enough, a full 51 of the 96 uses of “arrant” on the first page of results were in the phrase “arrant nonsense.” Among the rest of the hits, 6 were “arrant stupidity,” and almost all the rest were “arrant [something bad].” “Arrant nonsense” has become a sort of stock phrase, and you can use different words in the second slot as long as they’re akin to “nonsense.”

I had always assumed, without really thinking about it, that “arrant” was an older spelling of “errant.” “Arrant nonsense,” then, was nonsense that “errs,” goes astray. And, in fact, arrant and errant both derive etymologically from the common Latin word for “wandering” (iterāre), and the two spellings were used in English interchangeably until the 16th century—according to my fine friends Merriam and Webster.

Assorted dictionaries

But imagine my shock (and embarrassment, which I now share with you), after 35 years as a reader, to discover that “arrant” means…

Completely such; thoroughgoing: an arrant fool; the hotel’s arrant luxury.

That was the American Heritage Dictionary. Here’s the New Oxford American Dictionary that comes loaded on every Mac:

complete, utter: what arrant nonsense!

And that makes perfect sense. Arrant nonsense is complete and utter and thoroughgoing nonsense.

The OED shows how “errant” gave rise to “arrant.” A knight arrant was a “wandering” knight, a knight who was “out-and-about.” There were also bailiffs arrant.

But the word arrant came especially—for some reason I assume is lost to history, but this is the kind of thing language does all the time—to name thieves. Here’s the OED’s sense 2, and watch the shift the word undergoes even in this little paragraph:

2. In thief errant, arrant thief [= robber] originally an outlawed robber roving about the country, a freebooter, bandit, highwayman; hence, a public, notorious, professed robber, a ‘common thief,’ an undisguised, manifest, out-and-out thief.

The story of the word continues in the next sense. I just love the wit in the last line of the resulting OED sense 3.a.:

3.a. Hence: Notorious, manifest, downright, thorough-paced, unmitigated. Extended from thief to traitor, knave, rebel, coward, usurer; after 1575 widely used as an opprobrious intensive, with fool, dunce, ass, idiot, hypocrite, Pharisee, Papist, Puritan, infidel, atheist, blasphemer, and so on through the whole vocabulary of abuse.

Then, in sense 3.b., the word starts applying not to people but to things—like nonsense.

3.b. transferred of things, i.e. opprobrious deeds and qualities, theft, presumption, lie, device, etc.

And that, I think, is where the word has stopped. You can’t really say of someone, “What an arrant idiot he is.” The word doesn’t get applied to people anymore.

This is just the way language works. It morphs and changes and picks up on associations and burrows into them. It’s great. It’s awesome. I love language.

But for us, arrant is basically hanging on as a word combined with nonsense, and all of this word history is completely lost on us—and therefore no help to our understanding what arrant is really “supposed to” mean.

Malapropisms? Homophonic confusions? Misspellings?

I noticed in the NOW corpus that I’m not the only English speaker (and indeed, professional writer) who has incorrectly assumed that he understood the word arrant. Others, too, thought that it was just an alternate spelling of “errant.”

Just last July, The Standard (a Kenyan news site, I believe?), included this use of arrant:

…crime, assumed to know right or wrong and a three step disciplinary procedure for arrant children. Calculated to protect the welfare of children, the changes also recommend…

I had to chuckle here. This would mean, if it weren’t a mistake, that the children were complete and utter children, like avowed children who weren’t even hiding the fact of their childness.

And here’s VICE, from last June:

…storage to just one company. In 2017, for example, a few arrant keystrokes by an Amazon employee crashed numerous servers at an Amazon data center in Northern…

Those keystrokes were definitely keystrokes. Thoroughgoing keystrokes. You could hear them from the next cubicle!

Are these malapropisms or misspellings or what? There’s no way to know for sure, but at least one serious possibility is that other English speakers made the same mistake I did, confusing arrant (619 hits in the NOW database) with the far more common errant (17,542 hits in the NOW database [including 40 of “errant nonsense”!]).

False friends

The Corpus of Historical American English shows that arrant was paired with a broader range of adjectives in the past, though still all negative (“hypocrite,” “poltroon,” “coward”), making me think that people somewhen prior to now had a better idea of what arrant meant. COHA also shows that arrant used to be more commonly used and—therefore, I assume—more commonly understood.

All the above makes arrant in Shakespeare’s “arrant whore” a kind of a mild, connotative false friend. To some people, at least—and I think to a lot of people. We don’t use the word as often as English speakers used to use it, and we no longer use the word to refer to personal “offices” or occupations, like thief, traitor, knave, or whore. We apply it only to a tiny and specific portion of the vocabulary of abuse, mainly to the abstract qualities of nonsense, ignorance, and stupidity. And I think most people don’t know what “arrant” contributes to the phrase except for emphasis (?) and a whiff of hoitiness and/or toitiness (?). If they do get any specific meaning out of it, I think it’s a vague notion like the one I had, something akin to “errant.”

False friends happen when a word remains in English but its senses shift around and fall out of the language. And I think that’s happened with arrant, or what has just about happened. Today we would say, “Fortune, that open whore,” or “Fortune, that total whore.”

Isn’t language so intricate and cool? Man. I just can’t get enough of this stuff.


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Plagiarism by Time Machine!

Mark Ward

I originally posted this article on the Logos Talk Blog, and I obtained permission to repost it on my personal blog because I’m trying to have a reasonably complete record of my thoughts on the KJV under my “KJV” category for anyone out there in Internet Land who is interested.

In my recent book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, I argued that there were two major kinds of archaic words in the KJV, not one.

And in the most flagrant example I’ve ever seen of plagiarism by time machine, I just discovered a commentator from 150 years ago saying precisely the same thing.

In his Lectures Exegetical and Practical on the Epistle of James, published in 1871, Robert Johnstone quotes a verse from the King James Version:

If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. (James 1:26 KJV)

The KJV or “Authorized Version” was the standard English Bible translation of Johnstone’s day. He comments, gently and respectfully,

Our authorized version, admirable on the whole alike for accuracy and for perspicuity and beauty of expression, appears to lack somewhat of its customary excellence in the rendering of this verse; for in one or two points it is obscure, if not misleading. (156–157)

Commentators say this sort of thing all the time: such-and-such translation could do better here. But let’s look at the particular reasons Johnstone chose to make his comment. He’ll provide us some categories that are helpful for our use of the KJV in our own day. And I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to steal my arguments in Authorized before it was ever published. I cannot sue him because of 1 Corinthians 6, but I’m considering my options.

Dead words

His argument is precisely the same as my own: he starts by noting “dead words” in the KJV:

When you meet such a word as “ouches,” “taches,” “days-man,” you see at once that it is a stranger in modern English; and if you wish to understand what you read, and do not merely go over a chapter mechanically, under the idea that you are serving God and benefiting yourselves by passing the eye over the words, you ask a well-informed friend, or consult a book, what the obsolete word means. (157)

When you run across a dead word, you know you don’t know it—and you therefore know to turn to a dictionary, or a friend, to ferret its meaning out. This is a problem, but not an insurmountable one for a skilled and dedicated reader.

False friends

But then Johnstone turns to what I call in my book “false friends.” He mentions three in particular: nephew, carriage, and devotions. These are all words we still use (and were still used in 1871), but they all meant something different in 1611.

But when you read, “If any widow have children or nephews,” and do not know that everywhere in our version this word means “grandson[s];” when you are told that Paul and his company “took up their carriages, and went up to Jerusalem,” or that “David left his carriage in the hands of the keeper of the carriage,” and forget that with our translators “carriage” meant “baggage;” when you hear Paul saying to the Athenians, “As I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar,” and do not know that by these the translators intend the outward objects connected with what we now call devotion—temples, images, and the like;—in these and other similar cases you might easily go unconsciously altogether astray as to the sense of the passage. (157–158)

Johnstone sees both “dead words” and “false friends” as threats to the usefulness in his day of the King James Version. He doesn’t blame the KJV translators one bit for the presence of these words; he simply points to the natural process of language change.

He quotes R.C. Trench’s On the Authorized Version of the New Testament to show that this humanly undirected process can wreak havoc on understanding:

Words wholly unused in the English of our own time “are like rocks which stand out of the sea: we are warned of their presence, and there is little danger of our making shipwreck upon them. But words like those which have just been cited, as familiar now as when our version was made, but employed in quite different meanings from those which they then possessed, are like hidden rocks, which give no notice of their presence, and on which we may be shipwrecked, if I may so say, without so much as being aware of it. (158)

It’s clear, then, Johnstone says, which of the two major categories of language change is more detrimental to readability. And it’s just what I said: it’s false friends.

Change of meaning is a source of error which has affected a considerable number of words in the English Bible; and there is plainly more danger of misunderstanding passages where these occur, than passages where words occur which are now entirely out of use. (157)

Even before the widespread adoption of the electric light bulb, radio, and automobiles, false friends hindered readers from understanding “a considerable number” of KJV words.


As I say in my book, the KJV is not wholly unintelligible. And it is surely beautiful. But attentive and highly skilled readers—people who want others to understand the Bible and who work hard to help them—have been noticing dead words and false friends in the KJV for a very long time.

Neither I nor Johnstone nor Trench are “picking on” the venerable King James Version. All Elizabethan English, including Shakespeare and Milton, has suffered the effects of language change over the past 400-plus years. The process has only continued since Johnstone wrote. Bible readers who use the KJV, whether often or just a tittle, need to be aware of this fact. They can get some help from Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

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Future.Bible Conference

Mark Ward

In one week I’ll be “speaking” “at” a “conference” on the future of the Bible that is all online—actually, I recorded the video today and am now uploading it. My talk was really fun to put together, and I gave it this title: “Anything Invented After You’re Thirty-Five Is against the Natural Order of Things: A Media Ecology of Bible Software.”

In my talk I try to show a via media between techno-utopianism and the doomsday views of Ned Ludd.

You can sign up to view my talk at this link.

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Review: The Innovators

Mark Ward
The Innovators: How a Group of  Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Somehow some writers of biography end up sounding trite, both in their relating of their subjects’ stories and in the lessons they draw from them.

Isaacson is not one of these writers. The word that comes to my mind to describe him is “complementarity.” His powers of anecdote selection complement his keen ability to distill insight from them. I thoroughly enjoyed his Steve Jobs biography and felt that the set of biographies in Innovators—bios of people and of the technologies they created—complements the Jobs bio very well. Innovators expands the vision of the power of humanity and technology working together, humanities and science, to include the many stories beyond Jobs’ that demonstrate this power. Innovation comes from collaboration, from the complementarity of visionary and practical minds. And now that we have technology, innovation comes from the combination of human and machine strengths.

Isaacson’s narrative is fascinating, moves at just the right pace, and genuinely helped me understand the history and the current state of the technological world I live in. It was kind of funny to hear the back stories I never imagined behind technologies that just seemed to suddenly exist when I needed them: Blogger, Google, packet-switching. I will remember this book.

View all my reviews

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Harrowing Testimony from Chinese Abortion Doctors Who Enforced the One-Child Policy

Mark Ward

From the difficult-to-watch documentary (available on Netflix), One Child Nation. So profoundly sad and sobering.

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them

(Romans 2:14–15 ESV)
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Counsel for a Friend

Mark Ward

I’ve become a counselor for a number of young men who have realized that they can no longer in good conscience remain tied to King James Only institutions. Almost without exception, the ones who have reached out to me have shown genuine graciousness and gratitude toward the pastors and teachers in that world who shaped them. It’s really been remarkable to me how few chips on shoulders I have witnessed. I praise God. I always, always urge them to be as gracious as possible, considering themselves lest they also be tempted. Just yesterday I urged one of them not to go public with a complaint he was making about KJV Onlyism—it wasn’t seasoned with grace, just salt. He humbly listened and agreed.

One recurring fear among these men is that they don’t know where they will end up. The King James Version was, in their world and in their hearts, like a concrete wall along the Rio Grande built by Jack Hyles between the United States and full-on theological liberalism. Knock it down and who knows how many theological illegals will make it into the church, or how many Christians will pitch their tents toward Sodom? The KJV was a symbol of all the goodness within their circles and all the evil outside. It was an easy doctrinal litmus test. it was a piece of gnosis that gave them special cachet in theological debate: they didn’t have to take anyone seriously if that anyone was using a corrupt Bible.

When they realize that the viewpoint is untenable, they are unsettled. One adult woman, a highly educated one, read my book and commented to her husband, “I have been lied to my whole life.” That’s not a fun feeling.

It isn’t just people stuck in various conspiracy theories who feel a vague threat from within their own hearts that they might someday change in ways they don’t currently want to. I feel this way, especially when I see people I know apostatizing. I’m scared, frankly. What if someday I stop believing? Those people sure seemed to be like me a few years ago.

When I feel this way, I go back to the brass tacks of the Bible. I go to God. I run to Christ. I know that God created this world and created me. The Bible says so in Romans 1. I know that I’m a sinner and that only forgiveness from outside of nature can save me. I know that the most popular philosophies in American culture are embarrassingly vapid (telling people, “Can’t nobody throw shade on your name in these streets / Triple threat, you a boss, you a bae, you a beast,” isn’t helpful when what they need to hear is “Repent and let Christ restore your personal worth”), and that a great deal of whatever substance they have left has been stolen from Christianity.

I also know that evil dwells within me, as Romans shows, and that good dwells even among my enemies. God causes his common grace to fall on the unjust. And I find this to be such helpful knowledge. It takes from my shoulders the pressures of an impossible worldview.

I use these thoughts when I counsel people leaving KJV Onlyism. Below is what I wrote to someone who has become a real friend, even though I’ve never met him and may never get to until all good does dwell within us and all evil is banished forever. He was very deeply invested in the KJV-Only world. Somehow, however, we became friends on Goodreads and I could tell immediately by the quality of the books he was reading that he was not long for that world. He got great benefits from it, he really did. But he couldn’t stay there. They wouldn’t let him, even if he wanted to. He faced the genuine possibility of the loss of multiple friendships, however, and he wanted to do this the right way. So we talked. These are some things that I said to him. I ended with a verse I have been thinking a lot about for the last few years as I’ve watched and prayed for people who have changed.

I understand the unsettled feeling of not knowing for sure where you’ll land. If all these verities that have been drummed into me are actually falsities, then which foundation stone will crumble next?

I have faced a little of this. Even though my “move” has been about two inches to the “left” from the churches of my youth, I pretty well agonized over each inch—and I took a long time at it. Even now I regularly call out to God for wisdom—and even to pull me back if it was only one and a half inches that I was supposed to travel.

A few thoughts:

1) Not everything in those falsities was false. Your leaders and teachers were often trying to protect something good in a ham-handed way. KJV-Onlyism is a protection of the stability of our faith in God’s word through the ham-handed means of saying that only one translation can really be faithful. Anti-Calvinism is a protection of the precious truth of human responsibility and the genuine reality of our choices through the ham-handed means of denying passages about God’s meticulous sovereignty. Revivalism is a protection of the truth that the gospel is a free offer to all, as well as the truth that conversion is necessary for salvation—through the ham-handed means of pressuring and manipulating people into make decisions. I often think that the reason God’s blessing and Spirit seem (to me) to remain on so many KJV-Only brothers and sisters despite their holding various faulty ideas about the KJV is that they are ham-handed rather than high-handed. Ruckman is high-handed: he was openly hateful toward God’s people. I believe he was unregenerated, and I came to that conclusion after reading a lot of his stuff. =( But all the KJV-Only people I have known personally are true brothers and true sisters who have stumbled and not leapt into their particular doctrinal trap. And in the inscrutable ways of God, I can say with sincerity that they have some strengths I lack.

2) What you realize when you have to leave a given Christian tradition is that it’s possible to compare traditions as wholes, once you get to a place of maturity and have done some good reading. In other words, you can compare forests and not just trees. I love tons of trees in the fundamentalist forest—individual values and viewpoints. I, for example, feel like I need to be around people who are skeptical of watching “prestige television” like Breaking Bad. I get the Kuyperian justification for watching it, and I think there’s real truth in it: excellent art is a great good. But I want the weight of my tradition to be, well, skeptical of attempts to justify worldliness and sin through theology. But overall, the forest of the Reformed tradition seems to me to be a healthier one—by just a bit. It is also larger, and that comforts me. Some of those trees have been growing in there for 1,600 years, I think—the Augustinian soteriology tree, for example. I live in an overlapping part of the fundamentalist and Reformed forests. “All are yours,” Paul said. Minnick and MacArthur, Jones and Carson. I look at other forests, like the dark Catholic forest with skeletons and pickled tongues hiding inside, and the mainline Protestant swamp, and the broader evangelical grove of haphazardly planted saplings, and I don’t see homes anywhere for me. I’ve been asking myself for years: what does a given tradition produce? Roman Catholicism produces people who don’t know the Bible. I know there are exceptions, but the rule has held for me in 99% of my experience. (I’ve had Roman Catholics in the 1% tell me this very thing.) Mainline Protestantism produces the same ignorance, plus creepy art. Broader, mainstream evangelicalism produces too many slick, Madison Avenue, flashes in the pan. Look at the books that come out of the traditions. Roman Catholic books can be deep, but many are obviously flawed by the worship of saints and other unwarranted accretions. Mainliners write some better books (I do love Marilynne Robinson!), but they are often exercises in avoiding two thirds of what the Bible says to our particular culture (though when Robinson gets into the other third, she can write like no other). Mainstream evangelicals write vapid books with a prosperity-gospel or self-helpish feel. It’s the Reformed tradition that gives us biblical, meaty stuff—the kind of stuff my KJVO pastors growing up didn’t know they were pointing me towards (though my pastor in college did), but they truly were. I have some Arminian friends who deserve a shout-out here: they have Grant Osborne (and others, but don’t make me list them!). But I’ve got to go where the food is, and the food is sitting on my shelves right now—including my digital shelves—in book after book by people in the Augustinian, Reformation, Calvinistic tradition. I look at that forest and I see a healthy home.

I’m praying for you. I dedicated my morning bus ride to you. I really feel your pain. Your Master is able to make you stand.

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