The surprising vitality of one small word

A 1395 translation of the Bible demonstrates that the word 'sad' didn’t mean what it does now. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Sisters Heather (r.) and Hannah Miedema stroll with their parasols during a Jane Austen character weekend on Aug. 12, 2017 in Hyde Park, Vermont.

In a 1395 translation of the Bible, God tells the prophet Ezekiel: “I shall bind that that was broken, and I shall make sad that that was sick” (Ezek. 34:16). Around the same time, Chaucer describes a beautiful woman as “debonair, good, glad and sad.” Sad, these lines show, didn’t mean what it does now. 

In one of its earliest senses, sad signifies “steadfast, firm” and “strong” or “valiant,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. “I shall make sad” thus means in modern English “I will make strong,” giving us a more familiar translation of this line: “I will strengthen the weak” (New Revised Standard Version).

Sad was also used to describe a “dignified, grave, serious” appearance. Chaucer’s lady is “glad” – cheerful and affable, but his poem “The Book of the Duchess” also depicts her as a moral exemplar with a stately – sad – mien. Sad sometimes also meant “solid.” “Sad stone walls” were thick and strong in the Middle Ages, not miserable or weepy. 

But theheaviness of sad could be emotional as well as physical. Since the 14th century, the word has also carried the sense of “sorrowful” or “mournful.” 

I’ve been thinking about sad because of a reader’s question about the use of the word in “Christ My Refuge,” a poem by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of The Christian Science Monitor. 

O’er waiting harpstrings of the mind

There sweeps a strain,

Low, sad, and sweet, whose measures bind

The power of pain.

Here, Mrs. Eddy is describing divine music with the power to control pain. It doesn’t seem sad in the sense of expressing or causing sorrow, since it inspires rapturous thoughts in the next stanza. Instead, her use of sad seems to hark back to its earlier meanings. The music is very likely dignified and serious, as befits a divine melody, and powerful as well – able to “bind” pain and lift the human spirit.

Sad here also reflects aspects of a related word that became popular in the Renaissance: melancholy. Melancholy is a poetic kind of sorrow, tinged with aesthetic pleasure, and often referred to as “sweet” or “delightful.” In Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey,” for example, a character speaks of “the delightful melancholy” that a grove of fir trees inspired. Eddy’s “low, sad, and sweet” strain might very well be melancholy, too. 

I love poetry, how just one word can spark different interpretations. One thing is clear, though; the poem’s sad has nothing to do with the meaning the word is currently developing on social media. Here, it is an insult, connoting “pitiful” or “pathetic,” largely because of President Trump’s use of the word in his tweets. It’s a sad turn for such an interesting word.

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