For our “Word Wednesday” feature today, we consider another entry in one of my new favorite word books – Coined by God: Words and Phrases That First Appear in the English Translations of the Bible – the combined work of Stanley Malless and Jeffrey McQuain (W.W. Norton, 2003).
Our selection today is the word “doctrine”, perhaps unspectacular to us, but nonetheless, quite significant in its own right and certainly in its origin. About this now common English word Malless and McQuain write (pp.49-50):
Another Wycliffite loanword from the Latin of Jerome’s New Testament, doctrine enters the written language in the words of Matthew’s Jesus, who is quoting Isaiah: ‘This people honors me without cause, teaching the doctrines and commandments of men’ (Matthew 15:9). This is the first time that doctrine appears in the modern sense of ‘that which is taught as true concerning a specific area of knowledge’ (as in the Monroe Doctrine, when ‘knowledge’ becomes ‘policy’). Through the seventeenth century it was most commonly understood as ‘the action of teaching,’ and Wycliffe claims first rights on this connotation as well: ‘In all things showing good faith, that they adorn in all things the doctrine [doctryn] of our savior God (Titus 2:10).
The staying power of this authoritative noun might have to do with its learned ancestry. From the Latin verb docere (‘to teach) and its Greek relatives dadaskein (‘to teach’) and dokein (‘to seem’), doctrine’s siblings include doctor (which originally meant ‘teacher’), document, dogma, orthodox, doxology, and decent.
And two hundred years after Wycliffe, Shakespeare managed to give it even wider audience when in Love’s Labor’s Lost Berowne professes that ‘From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive; /They are the ground, the books, the academes, /From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire’ (IV.iii. 298-300).