First of all, unclench, folks. No one’s going to be offended. I think.
Read the King James Bible or a lot of Shakespeare, and you’ll see people addressing God (in the Bible) or other people (in Shakespeare) not as “you” but as “thou.” Jesus and God the Father are both addressed not with “you” but as “thou.”
As a result, most folks born in the past three hundred years or so say, “hmmm…. that must be a more formal way of addressing someone.” They’re basically wrong, though, and that pervades a lot of sword-and-sorcery and historical fiction, as you often read of supplicant to a king or some other higher-up as “thou.” Similarly, in poetry a lover might use “thou” to talk to a beloved. Trust me, though, if the chance comes around to borrow a time machine and travel to the past, skip the “thou’s” with any kings or pretty maidens that you’d like to impress.
There’s an interesting amount of, um, difference in what you can read on the Web about “you” versus “thou,” but fortunately I’ve got a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, all 24 volumes (thank you, Darcee!) and so what I’m about to say comes from its entry on “thou.” I think I’ve got it right — that print is awfully small! — but if I’ve mis-read it, apologies. Here goes.
Back in Old English — pre-Battle of Hastings, early/middle Medieval times — the word for the “second person singular,” what we say “you” to express in 21st century English — was “thou.” That’s the only “you” we had. No matter who you talked to, you thou-ed them. “My king, how masterful is thy judgment!” “Get away from my daughter, thou worthless scum!”
As Middle English appears (1100-ish through 1400-ish), though, “thou” splits into two words, “thou” and “you.” It’s sorta-kinda like many European languages that have two different words for “you,” a formal one and an informal one. For example, if you’ve learned even a little Spanish, then you know that the word “you” is “tu” (sorry, I can’t figure out accents on this thing) when talking to friends, and “usted” when talking to one’s superiors. (That’s the textbook version, anyway — as people in modern societies stress at least a veneer of egalitarianism, it’s not unusual in reality to “tu” your boss or “usted” the lady who cleans your home. But our story takes place no later than the 16th century, when things were different.)
“Thou/you” is a bit different, however, from “tu/usted.” For any one of those reasons that cause people’s languages to evolve, “thou” became “you.” As it made that change, however, “thou” didn’t disappear; instead, thou” stuck around for special cases — your friends and people who aren’t your friends but whom you want to “talk down” to.
The upshot of that was that even though the “you”/”thou” thing was evolving, it was pretty clear by, say, 1200 that you’d “you” the king, the local lord or like, and you’d “thou” a servant. By 1700, the OED says that “thou” had pretty much dropped out of the language, and everyone used “you” for both those above and below them. Thou still remained around some times, however –for artistic/poetic uses that mainly stem from our reading of Shakespeare or the King James Bible. You can see that to this day, as clearly anyone in the 21st century who’s using “thou” is showing respect to the thou-ee, not disrespect, whereas “thou”-ing the King in 1270 might have gotten you a sword though the gut.
How’d that happen? Why does the Bible have people “thou” Jesus and his dad?
Well, the KJ Bible is derived from an earlier English translation, the one done by Reformation crusader William Tyndale. Recall that people weren’t permitted to translate the Bible into English pre-Reformation, for reasons that, um, I don’t want to upset people over, so I’ll skip that part, if that’s all right. (If you watched The Tudors, the Tyndale Bible was the Bible that they portrayed Anne Boleyn pushing at Henry.) Anyway, the idea in the translation was (supposedly — I didn’t find any primary source on this, just some analysis elsewhere) that Jesus wasn’t a distant, mete-out-punishment-from-on-high kind of god, but instead a powerful but approachable deity, someone who cares about you and that would be happy to have you think of him as your friend. (Certainly saying, “Jesus is our friend” wouldn’t get too many funny looks nowadays. Particularly amongst Doobie Brothers fans.) And what second person singular pronoun do you use to talk to a friend? Thou hast got it, dear reader… “thou.” Every single thee, thine and thou in Tyndale’s Bible hammers home the notion that Jesus is a good, approachable, fair guy, unlike the perception of officials in a certain large organized religion based in Rome that the various kinds of Reformation folks were rebelling against.
As time went on — the story’s almost over, I promise! — people who never, ever heard “thou” except when used to talk to God in the Bible or at church logically and naturally thought, “hey, calling someone ‘thou’ must mean that person’s pretty important, a way of showing respect.'” But now you know otherwise, hence my tongue-in-cheek title. Let me hasten to close, however, by pointing out that while this is an interesting historical curiosum, it’s nothing worth causing people to start editing Bibles over. I mean, after all, no matter how you address whatever god you believe in, it seems pretty clear to me that he or she’s going to know what was in your heart when you said it, right?
I hope I can say without offense that I thank thee all for reading my blog posts! I hope you like ’em. — Mark