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The letter "i" is iota in the Greek New Testament. And it has a wonderful usage as a diminutive, especially by John, when this little letter is inserted into certain words.   By GC Willis: public domain


Some Meditations on Diminutives: 

  • Little Lambs — Arnia
  • Little Sheep — Probatia
  • Little Children — Paidia
  • Little Children (bairns) — Teknia
  • Little Daughter — Thugatrion

In our English language some of the tenderest, sweetest and most endearing, yet most elusive words are our diminutives. Webster's dictionary tells us that 'Charley' is the diminutive of 'Charles.' Her Majesty the Queen might call Prince Charles, 'Charley,' but we may not do so: it is too intimate, too endearing a name, for a stranger to use.


Nor is it only to children that we use diminutives, I had an uncle by name of Charles, and he was 'Uncle Charley' to his nieces and nephews as long as he lived: so a diminutive may lose the sense of size, by being overpowered by the sense of endearment. Yet not all diminutives have the sense of endearment, though many have. 'Rivulet' is the diminutive of 'river,' and has no other sense than the smallness of its size. 'Bairnie' is the diminutive of 'bairn' and really means 'a little bairn;' but a Scotch mother may say to her boys and girls, even after they are grown up: "My bairnie!" and they will understand that she does not refer to size, but affection: and if they are nice children, they will return that affection with a kiss. We have various ways of forming our diminutives in English, as noted: rivulet, bairnie, lambkin, and so forth. In the Greek New Testament we also find diminutives, but they are formed by adding the letter 'i.' Thus, 'teknon' a child, becomes teknion in its diminutive. 'Thugater,' 'daughter,' has 'thugatrion' for its diminutive; but I know of no diminutive in English for 'daughter,' though a beloved friend tells me they have one in German.

We do not very often use diminutives in English; in a sense they are almost too sacred to be dragged into ordinary usage; and are reserved for occasions of special stress or feeling. The same, I think, is true in Greek. This makes them the more precious when they are used. To me, one of the loveliest diminutives in the Greek New Testament is 'teknion', mentioned above. The Lord Himself is speaking when we first hear it in the New Testament. It is on the same night in which He was betrayed; and He exclaims, 'Teknia!' (the plural of Teknion),"Teknia, Yet a little while I am with you!" That parting was before His soul, and well He knew what it would mean to His disciples: and so, with a heart full of love, He exclaims:"Teknia!" I know not how it can be translated. Our Authorised Version (KJV) has, "Little Children!" Mr. Darby has, "Children", Rotherham has "Dear Children." All, in a sense, are right; but none seem to me to even begin to translate what was in the Lord's heart, and what He expressed to His disciples that night, by that one little word, "Teknia." One excellent dictionary suggests that the best translation of teknon' is the Scottish word 'bairn.' Both come from a word meaning to be born.' Those who have had the privilege of a Scottish mother or wife will know exactly what was meant when she said to her children: "Bairnies!" That, I think, is what the Lord meant when He said, on that dark betrayal night 'Teknia!'

When the mother says 'Bairnies!' she knows they are her own born children, her very own! She sees them as still needing her tender loving care; she pours out the love of her heart through this word in a way, perhaps, no other word could convey. It does not mean they are good children; It is a word that may be wrung from a broken heart, because of the naughtiness and selfwill of the children. But above all else, it tells of the mother-love, and that must flow over in some way, and so she exclaims, 'Bairnies!' So was it that night when we meet this word for the first time in the New Testament.

You may stand and gaze on a lovely rose, in all its perfection, with its exquisite fragrance: but if you try and study it, and pull it to pieces, you ruin the rose; so one feels afraid to touch these exquisite words with clumsy hands, for fear we spoil the beauty of them: and yet they were written for our learning. But, alas, with most it is matter of complete indifference whether the Spirit of God writes Tekna' or 'Teknia.'

The next time we meet it is in Galatians 4: 19: but the reading here is not certain: it may be 'teknia mou' — 'My bairnies', or it may be 'tekna mou' — 'My bairns.' I confess I hope Teknia is right. Paul had to write more severely to the Galatians than to any other of his children in the faith, and there in the midst of his stern reproofs, (if the reading is correct), we hear him exclaim: "My Bairnies!" This is the only time we find this word in Paul's Epistles; and he used it to the naughtiest children of all: used it, I doubt not, out of much affliction and anguish of heart, and many tears. It seems to be one of the most touching spots in all that great Apostle's writings. But diminutives are generally meant for the heart, not the head, and they are not meant to be explained, but to be understood by that wondrous intuition, that (in the things of God) the Spirit alone can, and does, give.

We find this word again in the First Epistle of John, seven times. This need not surprise us, for the Disciple that Jesus loved, naturally loved to use the one word uttered just once by His Lord, (as far as we know), that told, as perhaps none other of his Lord's words, the tender, yearning love of His heart for His own: and at such a time! These are the only times we find this word in the New Testament.

If you will turn now to John 21: 5-17, you will find the Lord using three more diminutives. You all know the lovely story of that breakfast on the beach, with the fire of coals that the Lord Himself had kindled.

You remember how He stood on the shore, and called to the disciples who were in the fishing boat, "Children, Have ye any meat?" And they had to answer, "No!" In the Greek Testament the word the Lord used is not "Children," but the diminutive of children, Paidia or, as we would say, Little children." But I do not think He was thinking of their age or size: I think that diminutive was called forth by the Lord's loving concern for their long, discouraging night of failure; and now no breakfast; for the very form of His question, as recorded in Greek, intimates that He knew the answer must be, "No!" Then the same love that asks the question in that particular form, tells them what to do: "Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find." And then the answering chord in the heart of the disciple whom Jesus loved tells him who is that "Stranger" standing on the beach, and he says to Peter, "It is the Lord!"

Then He invites them to breakfast: the breakfast His own hands have prepared, and after they have finished eating, you remember he asks Peter if he loved Him more than the other disciples. Peter dare not use the strong word (agapao) for love, that the Lord had used, but replies, "Thou knowest that I am fond of Thee, (phileo.) Then the Lord says, "Feed My arnia." Arnia is the diminutive of 'lambs.' I suppose the most literal would be, "Feed My lambkins." And I am not sure that it would be such a bad translation either. Rotherham has 'dear lambs,' and I think that brings out the thought intended. I doubt not that it was love, as well as size or age, that was in the Lord's heart. This is the only place we find this diminutive, except in the Book of Revelation, where we find it 27 times or more, used of the Lord Himself: but in 13: 11 we find it was the beast imitating the Lamb. Dr. Moulton thinks that on account of this the word had lost its special diminutive meaning of affection; but I like to think that the Disciple whom Jesus Loved, even at the end of his life, and when banished on the Isle of Patmos, could not breathe that word 'Lamb' without using a form that expressed the beloved Lamb;' just as the Father would not say, "This is My Son," but rather, "This is My beloved Son." And is He not to you, to me, the 'Arnion': the 'Beloved Lamb'? And so, I think, the Lord said to Peter, "Feed My beloved lambs." And let us not forget that He meant size orage as well as affection. So let us not pass by the Children. { Moulton & Millican think there is complete absence of diminutive force: but I hope they are not entirely correct.}

The Lord then again asked Peter: "Lovest thou Me?" And Peter replies as before, and the Lord says: "Shepherd My probatia." 'Probatia' is the diminutive of 'sheep:' and I think what Peter understood by the Lord's use of this word was just this: "Shepherd My dear sheep," or, "My beloved sheep." The size of the sheep has been forgotten in the dearness of it: and how sweet to the soul, whether we are young or old, are these words: "My beloved lambs," "My beloved sheep." And you, Beloved, and I, are truly the Lord's beloved sheep and lambs; even though so often we are selfwilled and failing, yet to Him we are 'beloved.' And it may be the Lord has entrusted you with the care of some of His lambs or sheep: perhaps you have a class of children that are lambs of His, and it may be that sometimes they are noisy and trying and disobedient. Or it may be some of my older readers know what it is to seek to shepherd some of the Lord's sheep, and you find them stupid and contrary and hard to get on with, and you lose patience with them, and find them a sorry lot. It will help us if we remember the Lord calls them "My beloved lambs, My beloved sheep." That memory will help to make them dear to us also, and love suffereth long and is kind. And may we never look at them as our sheep, for the Lord calls them, "My dear sheep, My dear lambs."

And then came the Lord's third question, and He changes the word for 'lovest' from the word He had just used twice, to the word that Peter had used: the weaker word for 'love:' "Simon, son of Jonas, are you fond of Me?" That is what cut Peter to the heart. It was not that He asked three times if he loved Him, but it hurt terribly to think that the Lord would change the word for 'love' to the weak word; as though He questioned whether he really loved Him at all. And he bursts out: "Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I am fond of Thee." And the Lord says: "Feed My probatia:" "Feed My dear sheep." Those are the only times we find 'sheep' in the diminutive in the New Testament, as it is the only time we find 'lamb' in the diminutive, except in Revelation. But what a depth of meaning the Lord adds to His words, by just including that little 'i' three times: and you know, the Greek 'i' does not even have a dot to it!
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Let us next look at a lovely cluster of four diminutives, strung like four rare and sparkling jewels, in Mark 7: 25 to 28. We find the story also in Matthew 15: 21 to 28, and we have to ponder both Gospels to get the full beauty from this exquisite portion of Scripture. It is the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman. Mark tells us that her 'thugatrion': (diminutive of 'daughter') had an unclean spirit. Matthew tells us she was "miserably possessed" (kakos daimonizetai) by a demon. Jairus had come to the Lord not so long before, using the same diminutive for his daughter. Mark 5: 23. These are the only places in the New Testament that we find this word, and notice both are in Mark; for it was Mark, more than any other, who tells us the minute detail of some special word or look. How can we translate it? I know not, for in English we have no diminutive for 'daughter'. The translators have done their very best: 'little daughter', or 'young daughter', or 'dear daughter,' but I am sure it does not tell half the story. Perhaps for Jairus the nearest we could get in colloquial English would be something like this: "My wee girlie is near her end!" Can you not hear the pleading love in his words: "My wee girlie." She was twelve years old, but to the broken-hearted father she was still his 'wee girlie', — his 'thugatrion!! — and she was dying: he dare not use the word for 'death' so he says 'she is near her end.'

The Syro-Phoenician woman uses the same word. The Lord had walked very far, some fifty miles, to reach that woman of Tyre and her 'wee girlie,' and doubtless, as on another occasion, He was weary with His journey: and He kept wishing (Imperfect) that nobody would know the house he had entered: but He could not be hid: for this woman of Tyre hearing of Him, came and kept crying (Imperfect): "Pity me, Lord, Son of David!" But He answered her not a word. The disciples did not like her constant crying, and they kept asking (Imperfect) Him to send her away, because she keeps crying (Present) after us. But He answered, "I have not been sent but unto the lost sheep of Israel's house."

She came as to the "Son of David," which was His true title, but to the people of Israel: and as such she had no claim at all. So He replied: "Let the children first be filled:" The Lord used the word tekna: the ones who have the dignity and position by birth: (not teknia the diminutive): "for it is not right to take the children's (same word) bread, and throw it to the wee doggies." The poor mother had been pleading for her 'wee girlie', and the Lord takes up her term, and speaks of the 'wee doggies': the diminutive. Now notice, had the Lord used the ordinary word for dog, and not the diminutive: — and this story is the only place in the New Testament where the diminutive of 'dog' is found: — then this woman could not have replied as she did: for literally, as well as spiritually, in the East, 'without are dogs.' The fierce, horrible dogs of that land were not allowed in the houses, but the "wee doggies', the cute little puppies, could come in: and so the Lord gently and skilfully leads on her faith, by giving her this special, unusual word to encourage her; and she takes it up instantly: "Yes, Lord, and the wee doggies under the table eat of the wee crumbs (another diminutive) of the wee children (another diminutive, but not the honourable word for 'children,' teknia, but paidia, one that could be used of a servant).

She had watched her wee girlie eating, and knew how often she dropped wee crumbs. In our house the wee doggie used always to sit under the chair of the littlest one, because it well knew most crumbs dropped there. And, says she, I'm not asking for a lot; only for a 'wee crumb'. Has Jairus's wee girlie not dropped a wee crumb for a wee doggie over in Tyre? The children, the tekna, have been having a grand feast over in Judea; their sick healed, their lepers cleansed, the devils cast out of their children, even their dead raised to life: and is there never a wee crumb for a poor wee doggie in Tyre?

What joy that conversation brought to the Saviour of the world! Why, (I doubt not), it was just on purpose to bring a wee crumb to this wee doggie, — this wee girlie, — that the Saviour had made that long, weary journey; and when she had got her wee crumb He turns round and goes back again to 'the children.' Do you think that the Holy Spirit put those four little 'i's' into that story by accident? Sure I am He did not. Is that exquisite cluster of jewels nothing to you? Ah, Beloved, talk not slightingly of the Greek Testament; and discourage none from seeking to read the very words the Holy Spirit wrote. There are such treasures hidden there that none can ever exhaust them.

Only one more example. In John 6: 9 we find the word 'Paidarion', the diminutive of 'pais', 'a child.' It might be either a boy or a girl; but in the 6th of John there is later a pronoun in the masculine, so we know it was 'a little boy.' It was this 'little child' who provided the five barley loaves, and the two little fish, with which the Lord fed five thousand. This is the only place we find this word in the New Testament; but we find it twice in Genesis 22. This is the Chapter that tells of Abraham offering up Isaac. What Abraham seems to have said to the servants was something like this: "Abide ye here with the ass, and I and the dear child, or, little child, will go yonder and worship, and come again to you." And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham out of heaven, and said, "Lay not thine hand upon the dear child, neither do thou anything unto him." May the tenderness, the pathos, of these passages fill our hearts; for, as we have said, diminutives are for the heart, not for the head.