Etymology on the phrase “peculiar people”

So I had been doing some scripture study and noticed the scripture 1 Peter 2:9 which reads, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”

This should not be us.

This should not be us.

I have always been uneasy with the phrase “peculiar people.” We are supposed to be an example or a light unto the world, but a lot of members I knew would quote this scripture to get away with some truly bizarre and weird behavior that was off-putting to non-members of our Church. “Well, we’re supposed to be a peculiar people,” they would comment. I could not believe that God would want His people to be the equivalent of the kid who ate paste during school art class. While at BYU a professor in linguistics mentioned briefly that the word “peculiar” (referring to that very passage) is not what it we think it is and we should investigate it when we have the time. I never had up until now, thinking “when I have the time” but I decided to finally just go out and do the research. It’s very illuminating.

The word “peculiar” comes from the Latin word peculiaris, which means “of one’s own,” usually speaking of property. It’s derived from the Latin root peculium, meaning “private property,” literally “property of cattle.” Pecu means cattle (which is, I believe derived from the Greek word “peku“). Therefore, the original meaning of the word “peculiar” originated in the 1400-1450s, meaning “property or privilege belonging exclusively or characteristically to a person.”

The word “pecuniary” means “of or pertaining to money.” It’s derived from the same Latin roots, though more specifically pecuniarius (pertaining to money), which is derived from pecunia (money, property, wealth), which, again, is derived from pecu.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky. The idea of the word “peculiar” meaning “strange” or “unusual” came about during the 1600s, the same century the King James Bible was translated. Most likely, it started out with meaning “belonging to one person” which morphed into “belonging to one group” which morphed into “belonging to that one weird group” which finally became just plain old “weird” in general. However, the King James Bible was translated pretty early on in the century, and the new meaning makes a whole heck of a lot more sense. Notice the other phrases Peter uses in the context of that passage: “chosen generation,” “a royal priesthood,” and “an holy nation” (holy being derived from the Hebrew idea of “separate from the rest”).

The New International Version seems to agree with the original meaning of the word “peculiar” than the more modern one (A word about the NIV; I used to be very derisive of the NIV until the late Truman G. Madsen’s wife, Professor Ann Madsen, taught my Teachings of Isaiah class at BYU and we read almost exclusively from the NIV. The NIV is an attempt to make the more archaic translations readable and relies on a more modern knowledge of what we know today concerning ancient Greek and Latin rather than the very poor knowledge we had in the 1600s). The NIV passage reads “peculiar people” as “a people belonging to God.” Very interesting.

This completely changes the general Mormon culturally accepted idea of the word “peculiar.” We move from “weird” or “strange” to “owned by God.” This correlates pretty well with what we know as far as our relationship to God, and it certainly makes more sense in the context of the rest of the sentence. “Owned by God” matches more closely with the idea of being “chosen,” “royal,” and “holy (separate).” It doesn’t really match with the idea of just being plain weird or bizarre.

So the next time you want to impress your Sunday School class, bring this up! Unfortunately, it takes away our excuse and mandate to be that really bizarre, goofball religion (there’s a reason why our Church is so concerned – almost obsessive – about our public relations) and more towards acting like a people chosen and owned by God. However, in the end, I’m sure the trade off is worth it.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Etymology on the phrase “peculiar people”

  1. Arnold

    Interesting Post, God loves us no matter who we are what we look like or how “peculiar” we may look or seem. This is what ultimately confounds the world and their view of Christians and Christianity. God uses the simple things to confound the worldly.

  2. shematwater

    I once read one of the LDS leaders (dead now, and I can’t remember who) say that what is meant by the term ‘peculiar,’ or what he understood it to mean, was that we preached to all men, including other Christians.
    We were the first religion to send missionaries to other “Christian Nations.” Those denominations before us would only send missionaries to the “heathen nations.”
    I do not mean that they did not try to convert other Christians to their ideas. However, this was not done through missionaries. This was simply done by having public meetings and Sunday and hoping people would come and listen.

    Just a thought.

  3. Christopher

    I believe the word “peculiar” is also used in the Old Testament, although I can’t remember of the top of my head where it was. That “peculiar” was, of course, translated from Hebrew – the word being “segulah” (spelling?), which means “treasured.” I hope that considering us as covenant people to be “God’s own treasured people” also adds some depth to your discussion. 🙂

  4. A Peculiar Person

    Those of us that are “owned by GOD” can still appear to be *peculiar( weird) to those who fail to understand our joy in the midst of chaos or peace in the midst of the storm. Like the blog as I’m always excited about gaining new knowledge.

  5. Michael Bailey

    Great word study! I came across your post after googling “peculiar” having heard about its interesting root origin. I am reminded of the verse where we are told ‘fear not, you are worth many sparrows’ likewise, God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills considers us worth many cattle.

  6. Thanks for finding tha meaning of the word peculiar….you made it clear to me….gonna share it to others…….(different,extra ordinary,strange,one of a kind , special , distinct……these are the synonyms).

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