Sunday, December 10, 2006

Ye servants of the Lord, each in his office wait

Last week we sang "Ye servants of the Lord". It's number 18, in the advent section of the NEH.

Double dagger, however.

That's because the words which were written by Philip Doddridge in the eighteenth century are no longer presented in their original form.

"Each in his office wait" has been changed to "Each for your master wait". I guess there are two reasons. One is that it sounds as if we all work in an office block and we have to wait in our offices for the Lord to come round and see if we're hard at work at the computer. The other is that "his" changes from meaning "the servant's" (the servant waits in his office) to meaning "the Lord's" (Observant of his heavenly word and watchful at his gate). That's a trifle confusing.

OED definitions of "office": 1 something done toward anyone: a service, kindness, attention (first occurrence 1382); 2 that which one ought or has to do in the way of service; that which is required or expected: (a) duty towards others, moral obligation; (b) duty attaching ot one's position or station (first occurrence 1300); 3 that which is done or is intended to be done by a particular thing; that which anything is fitted to perform or performs customarily (first occurrence 1340); 4 a position or place to which certain duties are attached; a position of trust, authority or service under constituted authority (first occurrence 1250); 5 Ceremonial duty or service (first occurrence 1387); 6 an authorised form of divine worship (first occurrence 1387); 7 an official inquest (first occurrence 1430); 8 a place for the transaction of or public private business, often including the staff (first occurrence 1386, in Chaucer); 9 the kitchen and other domestic parts of the house (first occurrence 1386 in Chaucer), plus three further meanings I won't bore you with.

So it's an old word and the ambiguity goes right back to Chaucer. I take it the supposed problem that leads the editors to interfere is the perceived risk of confusing meaning 4 with meaning 8. But clearly these meanings have always been around, and it's not quite clear why people have become so incapable of reading English and understanding the ambiguity of office just now.

Perhaps because they don't get to sing hymns with real words often enough to ensure that the words stay in comon usage and remain understanded of the people.