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What are some English words that have changed in meaning since the translation of the KJV?

KJV words audio

The King James Version of the Bible has been a great blessing to millions of people. Its publication in 1611 was a landmark event, giving English speakers everywhere the ability to read Scripture for themselves and to understand what they were reading. Today, some churches assert that the Authorized, or King James Version (KJV), is the only authentic English Bible. While we respect their decision to use the KJV, we do not agree that it is the only—or even the best—translation to use. The vocabulary used in the KJV is a seventeenth-century vocabulary, and some KJV words can perplex modern readers.

The King James Version is an elegant piece of literature, but one of its difficulties is that the meanings of many words have changed in the four hundred years since it was first published. This, of course, is no fault of the translation; it is just a fact that languages change over time. Some KJV words no longer mean what they used to; other KJV words have fallen out of usage altogether.

The language of the KJV is Early Modern English—the language of Shakespeare’s plays. It is still readable today, but it does differ from today’s English. Many of the KJV’s distinctives are endearing to some, such as the use of thee and thou (thee and thou are simply singular forms of ye and you, which were always plural in Early Modern English). Other KJV words and expressions are simply quaint—does Numbers 23:22 really refer to a “unicorn”? There are some KJV words, however, that can cause believers more serious problems when they read the text. Here are some clarifications of a few KJV words:

Replenish. In Genesis 1:28 God tells Adam and Eve to “replenish” the earth. Many readers are confused by this KJV word, thinking it means the earth was formerly inhabited and that Adam and Eve’s descendants would replace an original, extinct race of humans. The Hebrew word male' actually meant “to fill completely,” not “to refill.”

In 1611, the English meaning (now archaic) of replenish was “to supply fully.” The re- does not mean “again,” as we might think. In this case, it is an intensive prefix; that is, it adds a sense of urgency to the verb. So the KJV word replenish could be defined as “to fill with urgency and enthusiasm.”

Closet. Matthew 6:6 contains another KJV word that needs some explanation. Jesus speaks of entering one’s “closet” to pray, and it’s not uncommon these days to hear someone speak of a “prayer closet.” This does not mean we have to pray in a clothes closet or a linen cupboard. The Greek tameion meant “an inner chamber, a secret room, or a storage room.” It is not wrong to say the original Greek could have referred to a bedroom.

Our word closet is derived from the French clos, which merely meant “a private room”—a room that is “closed off.” So there’s no need to kneel among the extra shoes with hanging trousers draped over your shoulders in order to pray. Any private space will do.

Compel. In Acts 26:11, Paul admits that, before he was converted, he “compelled” believers to blaspheme Jesus Christ. To us, this KJV word sounds like he convinced them and they gave in. However, the Greek anagkazo is not so strong. Compelled means only he “threatened, begged, and pushed” them to blaspheme, but it does not mean that he succeeded. Early Christians were tougher than that.

The 1611 definition of compelled was based on the original Latin and French: to “compel” was to “drive together.” So Paul put pressure on the early Christians, attempting to “drive” them toward his goal. Associating compel with an “irresistible force” was not common until the early 1900s—fully 300 years after the KJV words were chosen by the translators commissioned by King James.

Conversation. The KJV word conversation is almost immediately associated today with “talking,” but neither the Hebrew derek in Psalm 37:14 nor the Greek anastrophe in Ephesians 4:22 refers to verbal communication. The Hebrew word actually means “a road,” and both the Hebrew and Greek make reference to one’s manner of life or the character one displays through life. It’s not that our speech shouldn’t be godly, but these verses specifically address our manner of interacting with people.

The obsolete definition of conversation is “conduct or behavior,” and this is the sense the KJV translators had in mind. The French conversation and the Latin conversationem have always referred to the way in which someone lives with others.

Cousin. In Luke 1:36 the KJV wording refers to Elizabeth as Mary’s “cousin.” It’s been a puzzle for years—how closely related were Elizabeth and Mary? The Greek suggenes means “kin” or, possibly, “someone from the same area or country.”

The KJV word cousin, as interpreted by most modern readers, seems to mean that Mary and Elizabeth were daughters of siblings. But that’s not what the word cousin used to mean. In Early Modern English, cousin commonly had a much broader meaning than just “child of one’s aunt or uncle.” In fact, a “cousin” could be anyone outside of one’s immediate family. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Duke Frederick calls Rosalind “cousin,” even though she is actually his niece. So what was the exact family relation between Mary and Elizabeth? We don’t know.

There are many other examples of KJV words that have changed meaning through the years. When Jesus was surrounded by “doctors” in Luke 2:46, we are to understand He was sitting in the midst of “teachers.” The “bewitchment” of Galatians 3:1 is a “leading astray.” The “carriages” of Acts 21:15 we would call “luggage.” When the mob was “instant” in Luke 23:23, they were being “urgent” or “insistent.” Those who speak “leasing” in Psalm 5:6 are actually speaking “deceit” or “falsehood.” When Jesus spoke of what was “meet” in Mark 7:27, He referred to what was “fitting” or “proper.”

Using the King James Version of the Bible is fine as long as readers are careful to know the vocabulary used. It takes further study to learn the archaic, obsolete, and defunct meanings of many KJV words. Inductive study and a good dictionary will help prevent misunderstandings from creeping into our interpretation of Scripture.

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What are some English words that have changed in meaning since the translation of the KJV?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022