The Teasing of King Mosiah

The Meanings of Words Change Over Time. To understand what a writer (or translator) meant when he used a given word or phrase, we need to understand what his words meant to him at the time he wrote them. The Book of Mormon was translated into English by the gift and power of God, but it was translated in 1829 and 1830. 1828 DictionaryThe meaning of the English words and phrases in the Book of Mormon is based on the usage of those words and phrases at (or before) that time, and not necessarily on their current usage today, nearly 200 years later. While many words in the Book of Mormon have the same meanings now that they had at that time, the meanings of several words and phrases have shifted. In some cases, the meanings have changed altogether. In other cases, the primary meaning of a word or phrase has shifted, so we need to be aware that the word may have been used with a secondary meaning that is rarely used today.

Teasing–Then and Now. A simple example of this concept is found in the usage of the verb to tease. In current usage, the most common meaning of this verb is “to make fun of” or “to mock playfully.” When a parent admonishes a child not to tease a younger sibling, the parent wants the child to stop making fun of that sibling—to stop mocking or taunting. At the time of Joseph Smith, however, the parent would more likely have asked the child not to vex the younger sibling. To vex means to irritate. At that time, the verb to tease was most commonly used to describe a part of the process for making yarn or thread. In this process, the wool or flax needed to be carded or teased. It needed to be combed out until the fibers were all going in the same direction.

A Helpful Tool. The verb to tease had also acquired a secondary meaning related to the verb to vex, but not the meaning we commonly use today. It sometimes referred to repeatedly asking for something. The 1828 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (which describes the meanings of words at the time of Joseph Smith) has this definition for the verb to tease: “To vex with importunity or impertinence; to harass, annoy, disturb or irritate by petty requests, or by jests and raillery. Parents are often teased by their children into unreasonable compliances.” This definition uses the word importunity, another word we rarely use today, which refers to a request that is “urged with troublesome frequency.” In other words, at the time the Book of Mormon was translated, the verb to tease sometimes referred to the annoying (vexing) practice of repeatedly asking for something. Parents, then as now, sometimes gave in to children who incessantly asked for something.

The Teasing of King Mosiah. An understanding of this meaning of the verb to tease helps us understand the one passage in the Book of Mormon (actually, the one passage in the Standard Words) that uses a form of this word. Mosiah 7:1 tells us that the people of King Mosiah “wearied him with their teasings.” These teasings were about the people who had, generations earlier, gone up to dwell in the land of Lehi-Nephi. When we try to apply our current usage of the verb to tease, this passage makes little sense. King Mosiah’s subjects wouldn’t have been making fun of their king or mocking him. It’s much more likely that they were urging him with troubling frequency to find out what had happened to those who had departed for the land of Lehi-Nephi. By repeatedly asking King Mosiah to find out what happened to those who had gone up to the land of Nephi-Lehi, the people eventually persuaded the young king to send an expedition to learn the fate of Zeniff’s people.

You may want to refer to the 1828 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language as you study the Book of Mormon. There are several Internet sites that allow you to look up words in this dictionary. I have found this one very helpful.

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