Open Quakers

Dedicated to Openness and Inclusivity in Quaker Meetings

Quaker Language

Truth and Simplicity

The Quaker testimonies relating to truth and simplicity are as old as the society itself. Amongst other things, they led to the refusal to swear on the Bible, or to take oaths generally. You might even say that these testimonies go back to the time when Jesus is said to have given us the beautifully simple 'Lord's Prayer' as an alternative to the long–winded and repetitious invocations and litanies that passed for prayer in his day (and still do in ours). But it sometimes seems that twenty–first century Quakers have lost the power of plain speech, and that's a great pity.

Quaker Speak has two unhelpful characteristics. One is euphemism; the other is jargon. Each has its own particular problems.


Euphemism amongst Quakers, as in the general run of society, is usually meant well, but it can cause misunderstanding and thereby much confusion. For example, I remember once being in conversation with an experienced and kindly member who said she thought I was being 'courageous' with regard to something or other. Maybe I am not terribly bright, but it was only several weeks later that I came to realise that what she had actually meant was that I was being downright foolhardy.

Euphemism can cause greater problems than just mere confusion however. How are we to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil, fact from fiction, if we are not willing to speak the truth as we see it and in plain terms? Our truth must be spoken with kindness, but sometimes it must be spoken plainly even in difficult circumstances:–

"To say or write a distasteful word is surely not violent especially when the speaker or writer believes it to be true. The essence of violence is that there must be a violent intention behind a thought, word, or act, i.e., an intention to do harm to the opponent so–called. If non–violence of thought is to be evolved in individuals or societies or nations, truth has to be told, however harsh or unpopular it may appear to be for the moment" – (Mahatma Gandhi quoted in 'Non–Violence or Non–Existence' by Satish Kumar).

If Quakers are to have any hope of changing either themselves or the world they live in, they must re–acquire the courage of saying what they really mean.


Jargon has a different problem associated with it. It helps to foster group identity among those that are familiar with it, but in so doing it tends to exclude other people from actively taking part in what is going on. In the early days of Quakerism the movement was evangelical and its adherents will have tended to use the common language of the day. However, as time has gone by, Quakers have turned in on themselves and to this day the use of jargon continues to underpin this tendency, despite all the talk about 'outreach'.

For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with Quaker jargon, the expression 'weighty friend' is a good example. You might be excused for thinking that this was someone with a liking for pies and cake. Not a bit of it. The expression refers to someone who is considered wise, and whose opinions tend to be valued amongst Quakers. Expressions such as this may serve some slight purpose in terms of communication between those in the know, but they can also have the effect of creating a rather intimidating sense of mystery for those who aren't, rather as the use of Latin once did among the Roman Catholic laity.

For a list of some of the more common expressions used by Quakers, have a look at the Jargon Buster provided by Ealing Quaker Meeting.

A friend of mine, now in membership, applied to join a meeting several years ago. Her application was turned down, for a number of reasons. Apparently, during the discussion about her application at monthly meeting (as area meeting was then called) one particular Quaker remarked that she had signed off her letter with the words 'yours sincerely'. This, he said, was a clear indication that the applicant was insufficiently familiar with Quaker custom and practice, which would have indicated the use of 'in friendship' to end a letter. To be fair, this incident did take place some years ago.

At one level, the use of jargon by Quakers can be seen as slightly quaint and rather amusing. However it can be very intimidating to those who are unfamiliar with Quakers and their ways. It certainly does not help Quakers engage with other people.