This does not mean we necessarily pronounce the words “wrongly,” if you were to look at it from the perspective of how these words were spoken in the early years of Christianity in Greek or Coptic. Actually, it appears that our pronunciation of many of the words listed below mirrors its ancient origins much more than the way they are spoken in English today.
But if you’re interested in knowing what a native English-speaking non-Copt is accustomed or expecting to hearing when they attend worship services, here are 8 words we get wrong (and whose meanings many of us do not fully understand):
- Copts pronounce it: ben-uh–fish–uh nt
- Background: This word is most commonly prayed as part of the Introduction of Every Hour in the Coptic Book of Hours (the Agpeya), when we say: “Let us give thanks to the beneficent and merciful God…” The tendency is to pronounce this like we pronounce the word “beneficial,” but end with “ent” instead. The way I remember how to correctly pronounce the word is by recalling the pronunciation of the famous Disney villain (or not-so villain if you saw the recent movie about her), Maleficent.
- Copts pronounce it: “high“-suhp
- Background: “Perhaps no plant mentioned in the Scriptures has given rise to greater differences of opinion than this,” says Sir William Smith in his Dictionary of the Bible. The word hyssop can be found in various places in Scripture, and they may not all refer to the same thing. This word is most familiar to us Copts as it is part of the daily Book of Hours prayers, found in the Introduction of Every Hour, which includes a recitation of Psalm 51 (or 50, if numbered according to the Septuagint): “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be made clean.” This word is less commonly known to be found elsewhere in Scripture: Exodus 12:22 (during the Passover, the Israelites were commanded to dip the blood of the slaughtered lamb into hyssop before smearing it on the door posts); Numbers 19:6, 18, Leviticus 14:6, 52 and Hebrews 9:19 (referring to its use in Levitical law); John 9:29 (the plant stalk was used to place a sponge soaked with vinegar on and give to Jesus to drink). Talmudists distinguish between wild hyssop and garden-planted hyssop, and describe five different kinds of “hyssop” in the Old Testament. The truth is, no one knows exactly what this is, except for the fact that it refers to a plant. For more on this, click here.
- Copts pronounce it: ah-meen
- Background: This is one of the most common words used in worship services, but unfortunately it is often the least understood so that it has to some regard become a word we simply use in vain. This word means that we agree with what has just been spoken. This word is used to o
- Copts pronounce it: al-leh–loo-yah
- Background: Many do not realize that this word means “Praise Yahweh,” or more commonly, “Praise God.” Alleluia is therefore a derivative of two hebrew words: the plural of “halal” which means praise, and the object (“Yah”) of the word Yahweh, which refers to God. The word Yahweh (YHWH) is derived from the response to Moses’s inquiry about the name of God when God spoke to him from the burning bush; God’s response was “I AM” (“ehyeh”). The word Yahweh was deemed so sacred that the Jews required another word to be spoken instead of it whenever they came across it in Scripture; that word is Adonai, which means “Lord” (and combining the consonants of YHWH and the vowels of Adonai is how people came up with the word Jehovah). Thus, whenever you are saying alleluia, what you are saying is HALLELU (Praise) YAH (God). And you are pronouncing the sacred name of God given to Moses. Think about that whenever you are in worship services.For example, if the priest were to say, “Blessed be God the Father, the Pantrocator,” and we responded “Amen, Alleluia,” we would be saying “I agree and affirm that He is God the Father, the Pantocrator. Praise Yah (God).”
- Copts pronounce it: mar-teer
- Background: This word is transliterated from Greek, and originally simply referred to a legal witness (as it is similarly used in Acts 5:32, where Scripture says “We are witnesses [i.e., μάρτυρες, martyres] of these things.”) In Revelation, the word takes on today’s more common meaning, that of one who suffers to the point of death for Christ (cf. Rev 2:13).
6. CHERUBIM / SERAPHIM
- Copts pronounce it: sher-oh-beem / seh-ra-feem
- Background: Cherubim and Seraphim are angels who have been presented artistically in various forms, always with wings, but with a variety of human and animal faces. Sometimes they are depicted with no legs, two legs, or four. They are signified as being closest to the throne of God. We find a cherub in Genesis 3:24, guarding the tree of life,and two cherubs spread over the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18-20; 37:7-9). In other passages cherubim served as visible pedestals upon which God’s presence rested (2 Sam 6:2; Psalm 80:1; Ezekiel 9:3), which is closely related to their imagery as transporters of God or his throne (2 Samuel 22:11; Ezekiel 9:3; 10:1-22). God is pictured at other times sitting between the cherubim (Exodus 25:22). Images of cherubim were featured prominently on holy objects and sites, such as the Ark of Covenant, adorning Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:23-29; 2 Chronicles 3:10-14; 5:7-8) and the curtains and veils of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:1, 31-34). Seraphim appear in Isaiah 6 with six wings, to covering its face, to its feet, and two to fly (as we hear in the Coptic Liturgy according to St. Gregory). They appear near the throne of God as well, like the cherubim. Interestingly, the term “seraph” is also sometimes designated to refer to a serpent, and on the famed Tut-Ankh-Amen’s throne one can find two winged cobras forming its armrests.
- Copts pronounce it: sah-bah-oht
- Background: Sabaoth is the Greek form of the Hebrew word tzebhaoth, which means hosts, or armies (note: in Hebrew, the word tzaba means “he waged war.”) Today it is most commonly translated as “Lord of Hosts” instead of the more understandable “Lord of Armies.” The word “hosts” can mean either simply a great multitude of persons/angels/etc. or refer to an army. Although we are inclined to use the word “hosts” likely because it brings to mind the phrase “heavenly hosts” and therefore implies in our minds that this refers to angels, yet some regard this limitation of the definition to simply angels as beign inaccurate. For example, this same word in the Old Testament refers to the national army or force of fighting men (cf. Psalm 44:9).
- Copts pronounce it: pan-toh-krah-tor
- Background: This Greek word can be understood to mean “the one who rules over everything.” This title of God can be found nine times in Revelation (which makes it fitting that this is the name given by the Coptic Church to the icon on the Eastern wall of the church behind the altar, which always depicts Christ with imagery from the book of Revelation). You can also find the word Pantocrator in 2 Corinthians 6:18 which follows the Septuagint’s usual rendering for “Yahweh Sabaoth” (as can be seen numerous times in the Old Testament). This title is unfortunately sometimes replaced with the word “Almighty” in an attempt to replace it with a more familiar English word, and because there is no exact equivalent of the word Pantocrator. Sadly, this has diluted the meaning and significance of the word. Almighty is often perceived as an adjective, but Pantocrator is a noun given as the title of God. He is not just almighty, He is THE ruler of ALL things. This word in Scripture is linked with God’s character of absolute existence dominating time as a whole from beginning to end (Revelation 1:8; 4:8), and as an affirmation of the power of God over all things (Revelation 9:6; 11:17; 15:3). For this reason you will find Orthodox Churches usually refraining from translating the word Pantocrator to any near-equivalent, but rather maintaining it in its original form to bear its original meaning.
“Dictionary of the Bible” by Sir William Smith (you can download all three volumes for free from google books, because its copyright has expired)
Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, By David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myer.
Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, edited by Watson E. Mills, Roger Aubrey Bullard
Temple and Contemplation: God’s Presence in the Cosmos, Church, and Human Heart edited by Scott W. Hahn, David Scot