Word Wednesday: “Ordeal”

UnfortunateEnglishFor our word feature this Wednesday we return to the great little word book Unfortunate English: The Gloomy Truth Behind the Words You Use by Bill Brohaugh (Writer’s Digest Books, 2006). Taking our final selection from the second main part of the book – “It Pains Me to Say: Words of Assault, Torture, Bloodletting, and Death” – we choose the word “ordeal” today. This word too has an interesting history, including a tie to the justice of God, as you will see. Here’s the entry under this word:

No one wants to suffer through an ordeal. The taxing experiences we call ordeals try your patience, your durability, your ability to cope.

They once tried, in a legal sense, your criminal guilt or innocence.

And guilty or innocent, you would literally suffer through a literal ordeal.

If your wounds didn’t fester after carrying a red-hot bar nine paces, you were innocent. Lucky you.

If you could retrieve a stone immersed in boiling water and didn’t develop blisters, you were innocent. Lucky you.

If you managed to walk an obstacle course of nine red-hot plowshares without incurring injury, you were innocent. And, small detail: You had to do it blindfolded.

If you didn’t drown after being thrown into a pool of water with a millstone tied around your neck, you were innocent.

These and other variations of ordeal (as in the phrase ‘trial by ordeal’) lasted until the 1200s and were based on a concept called judicia Dei. If God protected you, allowing you to survive or remain scathed only to a certain degree, God was issuing His judgment of innocence. The weakened and nonlegal sense of ordeal had arrived by the mid-1600s.

Makes your daily ordeals a little less trying, doesn’t it? (pp.60-61)