Prophecy & Language: When Foretellings Come True
It started with a question: what is the word for when a prophecy comes true?
I went to three sources of information in my search, because I lack the background to really dig into it on my own. I asked a professor of linguistics, a professor of philosophy (my college advisor Kate Norlock, who took to Facebook), and Mastodon at large — and in the end, I discovered four potential words. Predictably enough, they are Hebrew, Greek, English and Arabic respectively. I am still deeply curious if there are similar concepts in Hindi, but I know fewer people for whom that is an area of expertise.
Three of these languages are tied, for the purposes of this discussion, to a specific religion. Not all Hindus speak Hindi and not all Hindi speakers are Hindu, but in this context, the overlap is meaningful. Arabic is tied to Islam. Hebrew is tied to Judaism. Protestant Christianity is tied to English. (Were I to go into depth about Catholicism, the obvious connection would be Latin). Greek occupies a sort of fuzzy proto-Christian space, here.
I started with English even though I was pretty sure there wasn’t a word for what I was looking for, because if nothing else, that would help me narrow down the search and/or find a better search term to start from.
Prophecy has inherently religious overtones; its etymology (to English from Old French by way of Latin via the Greek prophētēs) explicitly marks a prophet as once who speaks the will of god. This is fundamentally different, in a way I didn’t consider when I set out to answer my question, from an oracle or an “oracular prediction.” Yet oracle has a similar etymology — the major difference is that an oracle has a nuance that more strongly means to speak advise or make a prediction. Although the Gods may be involved, the Classical polytheistic oracles have less of a connotation of fate being a function of divine will.
The post-Classical monotheistic religions have, for obvious reasons of being basically monotheistic with an omnipotent, omniscient divinity, a different take, but before I get into that I want to focus on the more modern, secular conceptualization of prophecy. Folks like Nostradamus. Movies like Minority Report. Books like Dune. Fictional plotlines about prescience and precognition, which are subtly different from oracles and prophecy because they are more of a psychic phenomenon than a religious one.
For all of the different words we have for foreknowledge and future sight and divine predictions, I still can’t think of a word for means a foretelling that was proven true or the moment that the foretelling comes true.
Oh, there are lots of phrases that function to get the point across; I’ve used a bunch here. But I’m surprised that we have words for the person uttering the prediction and the prediction itself, but not its actualization. What does that mean for our culture? Other cultures similarly situated? Do they take the actualization for granted? Does this phenomenon happen because it’s a given, or because it’s viewed as unlikely? God’s will as told by the Prophets will always eventually happen, but carnival fortunes are never more than an educated lie, so why bother dwelling on the moment?
It doesn’t mesh for me; if I were a religious person who genuinely believed that a prophet was sharing a thing that would come true I would want a word for that moment, that reaffirmation of faith. If I were a secular person who heard a prediction and it came true, I would want a word other than “you were right” or “I told you!” to be able to reference that with.
I do want a word for it.
Yet I’ve never noticed the lack before. Strange.
The notion of providence came up a lot in discussions I had on this topic. It gets at the idea that God will provide but rarely does the Protestant faith deal with genuine prophecy. I suppose it somehow feels un-modern. More commonly, Protestants address gratitude toward wish fulfillment in a way that reminds me strongly of how Roman generals would promise a particular god or goddess a temple in exchange for a victory in battle. Prayer, then prayer answered — it’s more contractual than predictive, with no negative implications for if the prayer doesn’t come true.
I think that says something interesting about pagan Romans and Protestants, but it’s not the topic I’m addressing, alas.
Speaking of the pagan Romans, the Greeks (who inspired much of Roman religion) have a useful word; plemora. It is used primarily in conjunction with the Biblical texts written in the hundred years after Jesus’ death. The sources I’ve come across do not address its usage by more mainstream Greeks, unfortunately — Western culture being what it is, most of the scholars I have access to see the classical era through the lens of early Christianity. From what I’ve been able to determine, it mostly meant full to the Greeks — as in, the ship is full.
Plemora has two common meanings as used by modern English-speakers, but both edge over more into the “fullness” meaning than the “complete” (as in, we have completed the loading of the ship) definition that is more useful.
The least useful is the gnostic concept of plemora as spiritual goodness or perfection that people can attain. This is much too wrapped up in the specifics of Christ as a concept (inherently linked to the person of Christ Jesus) to be useful for my purposes.
More useful is the idea of fulfilling prophecy, as seen in Matthew 1:22.
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
The lesson here is that language, like ethics, is messy. Even words that mean precisely what I want them to have multiple interpretations. With the exception of technical jargon (which is not a modern phenomenon, I feel compelled to mention) this is normal.
So plemora would be correct but fundamentally, I think, misleading to use.
Fascinating — this is my first real hint that there exists a culture with the term I am looking for with implications for what it means for the culture. Maybe I’m projecting, but there is an implication here that prophecy in the Jewish tradition is the result of the covenant between God and his people being fulfilled, not just a secular word that means something close enough to get the meaning across.
Part of this, of course, is that since this is a language I do not speak and even if I did speak it, I wouldn’t be a native speaker of it, it’s easier to look at it through the lens of an outsider.
But even with that disclaimer in mind, I don’t think it’s that big of a stretch to posit that Hebrew, more than English at least, reflects the culture that uses it. Few languages are tied as strongly to a particular culture as Hebrew is to the Jewish people.
The obvious next step was to check and see if what Hebrew word is used to translate Matthew, since Hebrew is unlikely to fall afoul of the complications Christ introduces to the topic the way English does. He does tend to overshadow things.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
Not quite “pure” but who else would I expect to be digging into the nuances of the Hebrew translations of post-Jesus texts, instead of focusing their energies on the Torah and TaNaK?
From what I could figure out, מַלֵא is linked to πληρóω and means, as close as I can determine as someone who speaks neither Hebrew nor Greek, “confirm” or “implement” and in context as part of a phrase, is used in Matthew to mean “to make actual what was previously spoken.”
Yet we are still dealing with a phrase… and one that is inherently biblical.
Somewhat ironically, I got my favorite answer from a mathematician: maktub, which appears frequently in “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho — coincidentally enough the source of the quote above my sharing icons at the bottom of this post!.
Its literal meaning is “it is written” but it has heavy connotations of “destiny” and “fate” being fulfilled. This implies that a Prophet did the writing. Perfect! Or is it. Do I dare use a word so heavily associated with another, singular, popular novel?
In its discussion of maktub, Quora had this Persian poem to offer, and I found it quite moving.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
—Omar Khayyam (or, more likely, Edward Fitzgerald)
I don’t like to dwell too much on it in my articles, but most of them are inspired by the braining (how’s that for technical jargon?) I do for my writing. As I mentioned in my original toot kicking off this chain of conversation, Verraine is a world were a particular class of mages has the ability to predict the future.
After delving into the linguistic implications surrounding the concept, I’ve decided that this is different from a prophecy. Prophecy implies a divine actor in a way that a fortune or a foretelling or prescient vision simply doesn’t. While there are certainly religions in Verraine and gods play a role in the society, my system is a more temple-based, “mythic hero” direction for the gods. The concept of “fate” plays much better than “god’s will” in a polytheistic world where the gods are neither omniscient nor omnipotent, and certainly not omnipresent.
Some mages are also seers, and perhaps one day their visions will be codified into oracular temples, but for now, that moment when a vision actualized into reality may have to remain unlinked to real-world etymology.
Over on Facebook, it was suggested that “wulfilled” (a portmanteau of “will fulfilled”) should be used to fulfill this niche, yet I find myself too secular to ascribe that much power to divinity. The obvious solution would be to replace the portmanteau with fate fulfilled, or perhaps fate met. Yet that wouldn’t show that the fate was spoken, was known, was predicted. It doesn’t get at that sense of “It is as I was told it would be.”
Two days of digging and a dozen people later, someone suggested foretold.
There’s a certain simplicity to it. Maybe that’s why it got overlooked for so long.