By Marv

I’m thinking the time has come to make a minor point about a certain frequently heard cliché. I heard it again over the weekend and decided to opine here on this very low-level pet peeve. Nothing earth shattering here, but allow me to get this off my chest, and then everyone please proceed to forget it, ignore me, and carry on regardless.

I’m talking about “foretelling and forthtelling,” and in particular the latter pseudo-word. Yes, I’m saying *forthtelling is not even a real word. Or if it has become one through constant usage within a certain Christianese subdialect, it is one of those which never should have existed. For example, another is *helpmate, which sprang from the froth of a misremembered “help meet” (i.e. suitable helper) in the Gen. 2:18 of the KJV.

“Forthtelling” is supposed to mean delivering a message from God, as opposed to foretelling, i.e. predicting the future. Accordingly, you hear people using these contrasting terms in defining or explaining Biblical prophecy, as if there were two subtypes of prophecy: (a) foretelling, and (b) forthtelling. Now, this is not without basis: prediction is a common element in prophecy, but by no means a necessary feature. And we do sometimes use the phrase “predictive prophecy,” which is not a redundancy, but neither does it indicate one category to be distinguished from “non-predictive” prophecy. And if you find “forthtelling” a useful way to express this, why, go ahead. But I don’t use it myself, and I’ll explain why not.

I’ve already mentioned that forthtell is not a real word. Also, the adverb forth is not really in anyone’s active vocabulary today (as far as I know) except in the stock phrases “and so forth” and “back and forth,” as well as intentionally archaic expressions such as “sally forth.” (Indeed, the building I am in as I write this has a place called a “sally port,” but still I’ve never heard anyone say they were sallying forth from it. I’ve never asked but I’d wager half the folks imagine it was named after some lady named Sally.) So why employ an obsolete expression in an effort to give a clear explanation?

Here’s my theory how this quasi-word came about: I think it arose from someone trying to deal with the etymology of the word “prophecy,” i.e. the Greek word prophēteuō. The fact is, that this word is constructed from the particle pro, which means “before” and the root pha- or phē- “to speak.” So etymologically, it’s pretty much equivalent to “foretell.”

But etymology is not ontology. In other words the origin of a word is not the same as a definition or explanation of the meaning of the word, or the nature of that to which it refers. Etymology is simply a mnemonic device, a convenient way of employing existing bits of vocabulary to point semantically to a particular concept.

It does not necessitate anything in regard to the referent. For example, the word for “read,” in Hebrew is an extended meaning of qara’ “to call,” and this no doubt came about because of the practice of someone reading aloud. But it can be used perfectly well of silent reading. In Greek, the same concept is signaled by anagignōskō, which etymologically is “re-knowing,” a derivation which makes perfect sense. However, you still don’t have to have forgotten the information to read about it.

So someone was evidently intending to dissociate prophēteuō with “foretelling” and either decided to appropriate the Latin pro, meaing “for,” or more likely mentally substitute the similar Greek preposition pros, which means “to” or “toward.” It may even be cognate with English “forth.”

But alas, that would be a faux etymology. Besides, it isn’t needed.

Okay, I’ve said my piece. I imagine “forthtell” is here to stay, but at least I seen my duty and I done it.


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