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The Function of Hieratic Diction (smite, smote, smitten)

The language of religious (and quasi-religious) ritual is typically studded with vocabulary that is recondite or archaic or both. As with all divinatory or sacerdotal diction, the function of specialized vocabulary in this realm goes beyond the denotation of objects or acts to include a generalized reference to sacred meanings that derive their force in part from their very obscurity. If a priest is the only one who knows the full meaning of a hieratic text, this linguistic asymmetry between preacher and congregation can work to heighten the sacredness of the text. Thus the use of Hebrew in Orthodox Judaism, for example, can enhance the validity of the service simply by creating a linguistic context that imparts a feeling to the celebrants of an illud tempus suffused not just by authenticity but by aetiological piety. Where the language of ritual is understood only by the priest, this fact alone can function to heighten the words’ religious force. As with magical incantations, intelligibility of  linguistic material is not at a premium and can even serve as a drawback.

To a lesser extent, the continued use of archaisms in a religious text can be seen to adhere to the same principle, witness the incidence of the verb smite in the immediately preceding post. There is no contemporary context (other than cricket) in which the Oxford English Dictionary Online records its use. Quite apart from its origin in the King James Version, this word maintains its stylistic appropriateness compared to modern synonyms precisely because substitutes would rob the Biblical diction of its hieratic force.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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