Sunday, December 29, 2013

Book of Mormon Word Usage: To Cross Oneself

[This post originally appeared in 2001 and is also published here.]

Book of Mormon Word Usage: To Cross Oneself

Occasionally the Book of Mormon uses an un usual expression for English that calls for greater attention. One example is found in Alma 39:9, where Alma exhorts his son Corianton to “repent and forsake your sins, and go no more after the lusts of your eyes, but cross yourself in all these things; for except ye do this ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God. Oh, remember, and take it upon you, and cross yourself in these things.”

The reflexive use of the verb to cross is unusual and awkward in modern English. The usage is also unique in the Book of Mormon, where the word is often used as a transitive verb taking as its object a body of water (1 Nephi colophon; 17:17; Alma 2:34; 16:6; 43:35, 40; 56:25; Ether 2:6, 22, 25; 3:4; 6:3).

Three times the Book of Mormon uses the verb to cross in an entirely different sense. The first is when King Noah’s priests interrogate Abinadi: “They began to question him, that they might cross him, that thereby they might have wherewith to accuse him” (Mosiah 12:19). The second use is when the lawyers of Ammonihah interrogate Amulek: “They began to question Amulek, that thereby they might make him cross his words, or contradict the words which he should speak” (Alma 10:16). The third use is when Nephi, son of Helaman, is accused by the judges of the people of Zarahemla: “They caused that Nephi should be taken and bound and brought before the multitude, and they began to question him in divers ways that they might cross him, that they might accuse him to death” (Helaman 9:19).

In these passages, the verb to cross is used as a synonym for to contradict, a point made explicit in Alma 10:16. All of these passages are in the context of legal interrogation. Alma, having been a judge himself for eight years (Mosiah 29:42–44; Alma 1:10–14; 4:15–20), uses a legal metaphor with his wayward son. He talks about how Corianton had “been guilty of so great a crime” and that his crimes “will stand as a testimony against [him] at the last day.” By repenting and forsaking his sins, Corianton can cross—contradict—the testimony of his crimes. Alma then urges his son “to counsel with [his] elder brothers” and to “give heed to their counsel,” thus using his brothers the way a defendant uses a legal counsel (Alma 39:7–10).

It is interesting to note that although in Joseph Smith’s day one sense of the verb to cross was “to contradict,”1 that usage had been outmoded for more than a century,2 and yet the unfamiliar term is particularly apt in its context. This is an instructive example of how seemingly awkward wording in the Book of Mormon can, upon closer examination of the text itself, prove to be not only correct but also effective and even poetic.


1. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Converse, 1828), s.v. “cross.”

2. The Oxford English Dictionary (s.v. “cross”) gives “to contradict” as definition 14c and lists that meaning as obsolete since 1702.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.