Because some men study to have learning rather than to live well, they err many times, and bring forth little good fruit or none. – The Imitation of Christ

I like the feel of the purposeful study that Thomas à Kempis recommends to his fellow monks, at least as it comes across here in Harold Gardner’s version of Richard Whitford’s 1530 translation.

Study to live well. Does that mean study (apply myself to knowledge) in order to live well? Or does it mean, as the OED has it, “To endeavour, make it one’s aim, set oneself deliberately to do something” — in this case to live well?

I’m tempted to answer as the kids do today: “Yes.” But “study” here almost certainly means something like the OED definition I quote. Still, I like the ambiguity the word “study” affords. I want the word to mean both things at once. If I can’t have a denotation that is stronger than the sum of two of the word’s definitions, then I want at least one of these definitions to permit a strong connotation of the other.

That’s why I like older English Bibles. You’ve already got the problem of a translation, and now you have to consider the text in a language that it almost, but not quite, your own. You might even find something that was never there and live in it. There are more straws to grasp, and straw makes nice nests.

I know no Greek. I’ve looked up philotimeomai in two Bible dictionaries. The word more closely fits the above “endeavour” definition from the OED. The King James translates the word as “labour,” “strive,” and “study,” depending on the word’s context. The modern English Bibles I have looked at do not translate the word as “study,” probably because the “endeavour” definition is, of course, archaic.

I like “Study to be quiet” from First Thessalonians. It’s part of a string of verses tied among several epistles in which Paul tells his readers or his readers’ charges, in so many words, to follow his example and get a job. But none of the modern versions say anything like “Study to be quiet.” The Revised English Bible, for instance, says, “Let it be your ambition to live quietly. . .”

I lived in a similar verse for years, the more famous “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

[photo of William Faulkner]At the four-times-a-week Bible studies I attended in my youth, we assumed that study meant study. (We understood that Paul wrote in Elizabethan English, and we understood Elizabethan English as well as he.) This verse from Timothy was one of the ones we used to justify our group study. But here’s the New American Standard’s take: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” “Be diligent” is not “study” as we normally use the word today.

But part of diligence in such a context might be what we call study today, no? I’m all the richer for my linguistic ineptitude.

Perhaps you see why I like Tindale, Geneva, King James, and Webster?

I’ll never discover new planets. (I’m quite nearsighted, and my discoveries usually come from tripping over large objects most people see from a distance. This tendency alone takes me out of the running.) But finding evidence of another definition of “study” in college while reading The Sound and the Furymade me feel as if I had discovered another planet adorning my bright “study” star.

In the idiot’s presence, one of Luster’s companions denies Luster’s suggestion that perhaps he had secretly discovered Luster’s missing quarter. “I aint studying no quarter. I got my own business to tend to,” the companion says. (“And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business. . .”: more of that verse in First Thessalonians.) A page later, the same companion denies any interest in the show Luster apparently wants to gain admission to with the quarter: “I aint studying that show.” Later in the book, Luster himself uses the word to deny Dilsey’s charge that he broke a window: “I aint stud’in dat winder.”

These black characters — Faulkner’s angels sent to live among the disintegrating Compson family — helped me in my darkness, too. These dialogs introduced me to “study” as something like “To be addicted to; to direct one’s efforts to; to be solicitous for, after; to set one’s mind upon. Obs.” (from the OED again). Never mind that this definition doesn’t generate a quotation in the OED from later than 1603.

Luster’s and his acquaintance’s use of “study” may have something more to do with “To think intently; to meditate (about, of, on, upon, in); to reflect, try to recollect something or to come to a decision. Now dial. and U.S. colloq.” (OED). Faulkner is even quoted in the OED using “study” in this sense, though the word’s context in that quote sure points to this last definition more than the context in which Luster and his companion use it.

So, not knowing a thing about linguistics or etymology, I go with the “To be addicted to; to direct one’s efforts to; to be solicitous for, after; to set one’s mind upon.” I throw in some “endeavour” and some normal study, too. But of course I use the word in this amalgamated sense usually only when I talk to myself. I think I limit it to that.

I attach meaning to words from their contexts. Shoot first; open the dictionary later. This is a wonderful tool for learning vocabulary, I am told. Few of us learn new words by looking them up straightaway in a dictionary, anyway. And even when I do look up words that are new to me, I often forget their meanings. But maybe I’ll become influential, and my misuses will germinate into new definitions in a future edition of the OED. Why discover planets when you can grow them?

So I use words incorrectly, or at least imprecisely. When I peck through all of this straw, I usually get something wrong — the original or the translation or both. At the same time, something is gained in the translation. I slowly build a nest I can live in.

Posted October 2006.