Pretty Considerable Much
By Brenda J. Evans
I love words. I hoard them. They are strewn everywhere. Scribbled on sticky notes or scraps of yellow legal pads. Highlighted in newspapers and magazines, ripped out and stashed in a shoe box or fat manila folder. Gallimaufry, ell, unwept, infodemic, syzygy, yammer, dontopedology, mere, logorrhea—dozens and dozens of them. Long and short. Big
and little. Pretty considerable much of them. And then there are phrases like pretty considerable much.
I like those, too. In July 1789, John Mathews led a surveying party into the newly established Northwest Territory, then called Ohio Country and now the states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. “Measureless wilderness” was on all sides, he said. Fear of native tribes loomed large. After all, the surveyors were intruders into tribal territories. President Washington and the new Congress considered the territory theirs because the British ceded it to the U.S. in the 1783 Treaty of Paris at the end of the Revolutionary War. The tribes rightly considered it theirs.
Mathews knew he and his men were in “pretty considerable much” danger, according to David McCullough in The Pioneers. A month later, in early morning, they were attacked. Most were killed though Mathews escaped with nothing but his hat and shirt, as the story goes. Pretty considerable much turned out to be an apt description.
We need apt words—pretty considerable much of them. Take the word tyranny. Often used to label cruel and despotic governments or leaders, its origins date past the Greeks to the Iron Age Lydians of Asia Minor. Just this week I came across it twice, used metaphorically by two Christian writers in the phrase “the tyranny of things.” Both George MacDonald and A. W. Tozer used the phrase to warn of a tendency toward excessive acquisitiveness, greed for “stuff.” Greed is tyrannical, they said, cruel and despotic. A tyrant.
Logophiles love words. I do, too. But truth is, I’m just a word nerd. I like them, want them. They intrigue me, so I go to the dictionary or online for their meanings and origins. Most I never actually use, especially the really long or obscure ones.
Take zenzizenzizenzic, for example, an obsolete six-syllable noun meaning the eighth power of a number. It has more Zs than any other word in the Oxford English Dictionary. I like it but won’t use it. Or gallimaufry, a noun describing a hodge-podge or confused jumble, or even a hash or ragout. Its origin dates to 1500s French, where it probably came from words meaning to make merry, live well, eat much—or indulge too much. Someday, I might use gallimaufry to talk about gluttony, but not today. Proverbs’ warning against gluttony is not popular among us 21st century Christians: “Put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony” (23:2). Enough said.
Also, words are funny things, as Dr. Robert Picirilli says in How We Got Our English Bible. “Their meaning is never absolute, not handed down by some authority. They mean what people use them to mean.”
I discovered that in C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, where he talked about trips to dentists: “If you gave them an inch, they took an ell.” He meant that when he went because of one aching tooth, the dentist invariably worked on other imperfect teeth, which irked him. Lewis made a spiritual point: “Our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take an ell…once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment.”
He’s right about the Lord, but his word ell buffaloed me. When I was a child, our old two-story clapboard house that always needed more paint than it got had three porches. The largest we called our ell-porch because it was shaped like an L. So, Lewis’ ell in juxtaposition to his inch made no sense to me. To the dictionary!
Turns out Lewis’ ell is a unit of measure from Old English and other older languages. It’s related to a person’s arm. The exact length is indefinite. It depends on whose arm and which part of the arm is measured. But I get Lewis’ point. When we come to the Lord, He takes us where we are, but extends that work further and further to bring us to full obedience, and in the end to perfection, made fit for Heaven. I’m glad when I give the Lord an inch of my life, He takes an ell. Glad He works in me “both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” to change me and shape me for eternity (Philippians 2:13).
Then there’s the word conjunction. I remember it from grammar lessons at New Hope Elementary School in the 1950s—describing those diminutive words (and, but, or, nor, for, yet) that join two words, phrases, clauses, or sentences.
But in December 2020, conjunction took on new meaning to me when the planets Jupiter and Saturn had their great conjunction. They looked close—almost on top of one another—at least as we earthlings here in Ashland, Kentucky, viewed them in the night sky up on Happy Ridge. In fact, it was the closest observable conjunction since AD 1226—only 0.1 degree apart by view, according to Deborah Byrd of EarthSky website, though in reality the planets were still 456 million miles apart. Through my binoculars, they seemed to almost merge. With Jupiter a tad brighter, both hung suspended against a stunning bluish-purple early evening sky. The moon rose nearby—1st quarter waxing and at about 50 percent illumination. That great conjunction was spectacular, absolutely gorgeous. Made me want to shout to the silent world up on Happy Ridge: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). I did murmur it quietly.
Later, I came across the word syzygy while studying the book of Philippians. In astronomy, syzygy is a roughly straight-line configuration of three or more celestial bodies in a gravitational system. Its origins go back to Greek and beyond. But syzygy has other meanings as well: a conjunction, yoke of animals, pair, union of two. When Paul used a form of syzygy in Philippians 4:3, he was calling on an unnamed Christian, his “true companion” in the faith, a suzugos at Philippi, to help settle a dispute between Euodia and Syntyche. Paul trusted his yokefellow to help Euodia and Syntyche come to resolution, to “agree in the Lord.”
I like the idea of having a suzugos, a yokefellow in the faith. A true companion on whom I can rely. We have Father, Son, and Holy Spirit on our side. They are for us. The Spirit indwells us. But we need human yokefellows, too. Believers who love us, walk with us, stand beside us, pray for us, chide us. Yokefellows reciprocate. She gives; I give in return. This mutuality, this sharing, this moving back and forth between us is encouraging. That’s what yokefellows do. Share the load and pull together.
In Anthony Doerr’s World War II novel, All the Light We Cannot See, a blind French girl is desperate to hear from her father interred in a German prison camp. Two Frenchmen bring scant news. “They just say words,” Marie-Laure muses, “and what are words but sounds…weightless vapors they send into the air.” Indeed, in one sense words are weightless vapors sent into the air. Some dissipate like an early morning fog and mean nothing.
But other words carry weighty meanings—neither vaporous nor fleeting. Words from our Lord in our precious Scriptures last forever; they move, help, guide, uphold. Also lasting and encouraging are words from our mates, our children, our friends. Words of writers who are artists and craftsmen. Words from our yokefellows in the faith. I love words. I’m thankful for pretty considerable much of them as they sustain me.
About the Author: Brenda Evans lives and writes in Ashland, KY. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.