Two Lexical Larks

“Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness.”

Romans 13:13

Towards the end of the fourteenth century, John Wycliffe rendered the Greek word κοιταις as “chambering,” and the editors of the Authorized or King James Version followed his example more than two hundred years later.  Bedding would have been the most literal translation, since κοιται is Greek for bed.  When St. Paul needed a word to denote the erotic behavior of homosexual males, for instance, he coined the word we transliterate as Arsenokoitai, which is literally “men-bed,” and we continue to use the world “bed” as a metonym for sexual intercourse (especially immoral sexual intercourse).

I find that objections were raised against the obscurity of the word “chambering” by the end of the eighteenth century, when one modernizer proposed that “chambering and wantonness” should be more intelligibly translated as “unchaste and immodest gratifications.”  I believe the proposed improvement is inferior because the words “unchaste” and “immodest” are redundant, and the critical condemnation of secret dealings has been lost.

Taken as a whole, Paul’s sentence is a proscription of hypocrisy and the leading of a “double life,” one half of which is carried out “in the dark.” He is certainly is not suggesting that the conduct he lists as examples would be “honest” (honorable) if only people had the “honesty” (pride) to do it “in broad daylight,” but is instead asking the reader to face the moral meaning of what were once known as “hole and corner” activities.

To “chamber” is to withdraw “behind closed doors,” or into a “hole and corner,” and this metonym of privacy therefore suggests shameful and discreditable behavior in a way that the metonym “bed” does not.

What transpired in that closed chamber Wycliffe translated as wantoness.  The Greek original is ατελγειαις (atelgeiais), which we today translate as lasciviousness, a Latinate word that English speakers of the fourteenth-century had yet to learn.  Wanton literally means badly trained (Old English wan (bad) + togen (train)), and has therefore come to mean undisciplined, reckless and wild.  As Lorenzo observes in Merchant of Venice,

“For do but note a wild and wanton herd,
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood.”

Feeling the hot condition of their blood, men and women have been known to begin bellowing and neighing loudly, and those who are ashamed of their shamelessness often elect to secret themselves by “chambering.”

Not always, though, for in my youth we often at late parties had occasion to enjoin amorous couples to “get a room.”  Perhaps we should have told them to “chamber yourselves, you wild and wanton colts.”  Or perhaps we should have told them to “walk as in the day.”

* * * * *

“Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” 

Matthew 7:14

Strait can mean narrow and narrow strait, as we see in the synonymy of the words straits and narrows in geography.  “Straits” are also difficulties, as when we speak of being in “dire straits,” but this is quite obviously a nautical metaphor.  To my knowledge, the phrase “dire straits” was first used in an eighteenth-century translation of the Argonautica and referred to the “Clashing Rocks” of the Bosporus, which Greek myth said guarded the moth of the Euxine (Black) Sea.

These Clashing Rocks (or Symplegades) would close like jaws and crush any ship that attempted to pass between them, until they were at last defeated and stilled by the swift rowing of the Argonauts.  Those who know the story will recall that Jason measured the speed with which the Clashing Rocks closed by setting a dove loose to fly between them. This is how the Argonauts approach to the original “dire straits” was described in that eighteenth-century translation (by Francis Fawkes).

When now the heroes through the vast profound,
Reach the dire straits with rocks encompassed round,
Though boiling gulfs the sailing pine detained,
Still on their way the labouring Grecians gain’d,
When the loud-justling rocks increased their fears:
The shores resounding thundered in their ears.

High on the prow Euphemus took his stand,
And held the dove that trembled in his hand.
The rest with Tiphys on their strength relied,
To shun the rocks, and stem the roaring tide.

Soon, one sharp angle pased, the joyful train
Saw the cleft crags wide opening to the main.
Euphemus loosed the dove, the heroes stood
Erect to see her skim the foaming flood.

She through the rocks a ready passage found;
The dire rocks met, and gave a dreadful sound:
The salt-sea spray in clouds began to rise;
Old ocean thundered; the cerulean skies
Re-bellowed loudly with the fearful din . . .

Passing through the “strait gate” of Matthew 7 is not as harrowing as passing through the Clashing Rocks, but it is a small gate.  Such small gates were often set beside a larger gate in order that people might pass with ease, and without releasing the animals for whom the wide gate was intended.  In England, such side gates were called wicket-gates, and this name was of course used by John Bunyan.  The symbolic essence of the strait or wicket-gate is not only that it is harder to see, but more especially that it is the way taken by higher beings, and not by mobs or herds or flocks.

The way beyond the strait gate is said to be “narrow,” but the word here suggests difficulty as well as constriction.  In fact, the word narrow seems to have meant miserly or grudging as long as it has meant the opposite of wide.  This grudging sense of narrow is remembered in such phrases as “narrow-minded” or a “narrow reading.”  A “narrow-minded” man is not generous with his sympathy or agreement, and a “narrow reading” does not put “charitable constructions” on words.  Narrow also seems to be related to the Dutch naar, which means dismal, and from this may have arisen the habit of calling the grave a “narrow house.”

Narrow also has the meaning of niggardly in the old expression a “narrow land,” although the phrase clearly denotes limits to size as well as fertility.

“And in the summer days unsure and brief
They forced from narrow lands and perilous sea,
With toil a scanty harvest perilously.”*

Thus those who pass through the strait gate put their foot to a path on which a certain degree of austerity must be expected.


*Frank Betts, “The Norsemen” in The Iron Age (1916)

5 thoughts on “Two Lexical Larks

  1. One other thing ‘chambering’ does as a translation, even better than the original, I think, is allude in an appropriately obscene but still present way to the physicality of immodesty; ‘chambering’ is a pretty good summation of what those wanton and lascivious people are looking to accomplish.

  2. I’m assuming there is absolutely no connection between Arsenokoitai and the British use of arse, but I was mildly amused by the thought that they may be. Always an interesting read.

    • No connection that I can see, but the accidental resemblance is funny. The Greek arsen means manly, masculine, virile, whereas the Germanic arse means backside or buttocks. It’s just occurred to me that the expression “arse backwards” is wrong since backwards is where the arse ought to be. To express the idea of something that is all wrong, we should say “arse forwards.”


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