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Every now and then I come across someone claiming that the word "literally" is now being used as a self-antonym. In other words, it is being used to mean "figuratively". Consider the following sentences:

1. And when he gets into the red zone, he literally explodes. (from a football announcer)
2. [Tom Sawyer] was literally rolling in wealth. (Mark Twain)
3. [Jay Gatsby] literally glowed. (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
4. [A certain Mozart piece was] the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat. (James Joyce)

As you can see, this isn't that new a phenomenon. It goes back at least a couple hundred years. There seems to be an incredible amount of outrage about it in certain spheres. Vice-President Joe Biden gets made fun of a lot for his excessive use of the term this way. But consider the following sentences:

5. When he gets into the red zone, he really explodes.
6. He was really rolling in wealth.
7. He really glowed.
8. The piece of music was really knocking everything else into a cocked hat.

Those sound perfectly fine. The word "literally" and the word "really" both normally indicate some genuineness to something. Yet both are used in situations where it's not really or literally the way it's being said to be. Both are wrong, if the words are being used literally. But they aren't being used literally. They're being used as intensifiers. He doesn't just glow. He really glows. Saying he literally glows is doing something similar.

What is not going on here is the use of these words as self-antonyms. The seventh sentence above does not mean "He doesn't really glow." That sentence means something very different. Nor does the third sentence mean " He doesn't literally glow." That sentence also conveys something different. These words are being used as intensifiers. Saying "he doesn't literally glow" or "he doesn't really glow" is not intensifying the sentence "he glows". But 3 and 7 are intensifying it. So the word is not being used to mean its opposite, in either case.

The word "literally" is not being used to mean "figuratively". If it were, then we would expect 3 to be synonymous with:

9. He figuratively glowed.

But the two are not synonymous. 3 would not be used if you intended to be talking about the linguistic properties of the word "glowed". A sentence like 9 is commenting on its own language. A sentence like 3 is doing no such thing. Furthermore, 3 has the intensification that 7 has. 9 does not. These sentences are not at all equivalent. If the word "literally" were being used to mean "figuratively" then they would be synonymous. What's actually going on is that the word is being used as an intensifier, the same way the word "really" gets used. That's not at all the same thing as being used to mean "figuratively". I suppose you might say that the word "literally" is being used figuratively. But that's not the same thing being used to mean "figuratively".

I've several times now run across a new linguistic trend, mostly among a certain brand of academic. When writing about people we would normally call slaves, the new trend is to call them "enslaved people". I assume the reasoning here is because we don't want to define someone by their enslavement, as if it's an identity-forming feature of their existence, and we shouldn't let someone in one of the most oppressive situations be defined by something entirely outside their control that has demeaning connotations. In that way, it reflects some of the concerns of person-first language, which I've usually encountered in the context of disabilities. 

[See my critique of person-first language. It's a bit over-the-top, as most satire is. The sense you get from it about what my views must be is not quite what they are. I'm not completely opposed to person-first language, and I even think sometimes it's the best way to go in certain settings. I would say that with small children it's far better to speak that way, whereas with older children and adults it's best to help them understand the categories we in fact use while drawing attention to the ways we illegitimately think about those categories and ways we process them unconsciously and thus denigrate the people we're talking about without always being aware of it.]

But this is different. For one thing, this isn't person-first language. Person-first language would not speak of enslaved people. It would speak of people with enslavement or people encumbered by, trapped by, oppressed by, or otherwise affected by enslavement. Person-first language is so roundabout, awkward, and unworkable that even those tempted to apply it in this case have actually refused to go that far. They will avail themselves of adjectives rather than nouns and use the adjectives to modify the noun 'people' or 'person'. It's grammatically parallel to "deaf people" or "autistic people" rather than "people without hearing" or "people with autism". But it's certainly a step in the direction of person-first language when compared with calling people slaves. The only grammatical equivalent is to speak of the deaf with no noun or to talk about people with autism as autists. [I should note that that's a bad idea even if there weren't any other problems with the term, because people will just think you're from Brooklyn or the Bronx and talking about people with very creative abilities and outlets.]

But there are differences, and I think some of them matter morally. One is that ordinary language does allow for slaves, and "enslaved people" is awkward, whereas "autistic people" or "people with autism" are both common, while "autists" is not. Another is that it's generally accepted that calling someone an autist is unacceptable, and it's at least not generally unacceptable to call someone who is enslaved a slave. That's not the only issue, but that's a difference. For example, it was much worse to call people retarded once that became a standard insult for people without any cognitive disabilities than it was when it was the accepted term and had not yet been used as an insult. Whether it was a good term ever is something people can debate, but surely it's made worse once it becomes used as an insult. So the fact that a lot of people do oppose a way of speaking does count more against it, and the fact that many people approve of a way of speaking does mean there's less to count against it, whatever else is true.

Another difference is that one is a disability and the other is an imposed condition. Both are involuntary, at least in most cases of slavery. Slavery can be accepted voluntary, especially in cases of indentured servanthood, selling oneself into slavery to pay off a debt, or accepting slavery to avoid a death penalty (well, that's at least not completely involuntary, although it's not actually a range of choices that anyone would consider sufficient for the choice to be fully voluntary). But one is known, at least by most people today, to be something that is not central to who one is but rather imposed. No one today, at least no one I personally know, thinks that anyone who is a slave is the sort of person whose slavery is necessary because they couldn't otherwise function in life. No one thinks slaved naturally deserve slavery. No one thinks it's part of a slave's nature to be a slave.

This is not true with racial categorizations. As much as we might discover scientifically about how there isn't all that much difference between different racial groups, we do process racial categories with stigmatized stereotypes, and scientific studies for decades now have consistently shown that these stereotypes and stigmatized categories will affect how we treat people, at least in small ways that most of us don't pick up on (and especially in situations where we're tired or busy and have to make decisions quickly without thinking carefully about them). This isn't true of the category "slave" even if it is true of other contingent categories. If I find out someone is a slave, I'm not going to process that the way I do if I find out they receive welfare, are homeless, or grew up in a ghetto. Whether I want to or not, I will make assumptions about the person if I discover they're in one of those other categories, and I won't if I find out someone had kidnapped and enslaved them. We're distant enough from the 19th-century practice of slavery (and what does go on today is both under the radar and officially disapproved of) that we just don't respond that way anymore.

So one of the important reasons for avoiding linguistic constructions that serve to foster innatist, essentialist thinking (which really only matters with small children anyway, according to the most careful psychological studies) does not matter with slavery. That means any argument for preferring "enslaved people" to "slaves" must have to do with how people in those categories would perceive it, not how others will be influenced by speaking or hearing the construction. And I suspect the same debate that occurs with disability would crop up here. People who prefer "person with autism" are usually parents, teachers, and psychologists who want to encourage not defining someone by the disability and who want others to respect them as people, taking their interests and desires as important, assuming competence first before assuming incompetence, and other essential features of treating someone as a person. Yet one can do that while using the word "autistic" as an adjective.

The other side is usually from people who have the condition who have the communication skills to express their view on the matter. They in fact prefer to be called "autistic" as an adjective, just as the deaf community generally prefers to be called "deaf" and thinks person-first language is insulting. Why is that? Because they see their condition (which they don't always see merely as a disability, because it involves both impairments and increased abilities) as something very important to who they are. It shouldn't define them as if it's the only thing that matters, but it is part of how they've formed their identity, just as race is for anyone who isn't in the dominant majority racial group in their social location. White people in the U.S. don't see whiteness as part of their identity, because it's part of white privilege not to be affected by race is ways that make you constantly think about those categories. Most members of other racial groups in the U.S. do consider their race to inform their sense of their own identity in significant enough ways that they wouldn't want people not to think of them according to those categories, as the dishonest color-blind ideal (does anyone really think they can pretend not to see race?) would have it.

How should this affect calling people "slaves" vs. "enslaved people"? Well, not having the chance to interview a bunch of people in that category, I just have to guess, but my suspicion is that it's going to be like race and disability, at least in terms of how they think of their identity while enslaved. It's pretty all-defining of what their life is. I can't see how that wouldn't be identity-forming. It's certainly more easily removed than the other cases I've been discussing, and that's why we can speak of people as former slaves. But that linguistic option show that we can handle the contingency of the category while still availing ourselves of the ordinary way of speaking, and there is at least some moral argument for retaining the category rather than abandoning it, which gives me little reason to want to engage in a major effort to revise our language in a pretty large way.

People With Blackness

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I've discovered the need to adopt a new way of speaking about people who are recently-descended from Africans. We've learned in the last couple decades that we ought to emphasize someone's personhood above any other characteristic, and thus it's thoroughly immoral to use any adjective in front of 'person'. We need to use predicate nouns instead. We no longer have sad people, for example. We simply have people with sadness. We no longer have short people. We have people with shortness. We don't want to define people with sadness as if their sadness is more important than their personhood, so we have a moral obligation to put the noun form after the word 'person'. Grammar does always indicate metaphysics, after all.

One sphere of language in which this lesson has never been properly applied is in the area of race. Why are we still talking about black people, for instance? Do we really want to define people solely in terms of their race? Do we really want to signal that their blackness is so central to who they are that we're going to pretend that people with blackness aren't people? If we call them black people, then we are treating their blackness as if it's a greater part of our conception of people with blackness than their personhood is. People with person-firstness have instructed us that we should never put disability-related adjectives in front of a noun or pronoun referring to a person, because we don't want them identified with that condition. But we've also learned from the same people that having a disability is not negative, which means this policy is not because disabilities are bad. Therefore, we ought to apply it to other cases when something is not bad but might wrongly be taken by someone to be bad, just as we would apply it to things that are genuinely bad. If race is not to be a negative, then I am not a white person. I'm a person with whiteness. It does make it a little awkward to speak of people with Asianness or people with Australian-first-people-ness (i.e. what used to be called aboriginalness). But it's worth the awkwardness of expression to avoid any chance of identifying them with the racial or ethnic group whose membership they possess.

Even worse, it's especially pernicious to say that someone is black (or African-American or whatever racial term we might choose). After all, using predicate adjectives amounts to making identity statements rather than merely ascribing a property to someone the way we would have thought that adjectives in English, even predicate adjectives, do. It's much more preferable to say that someone has blackness than to say that she is black. People aren't anything except persons. I'm not philosophical. I have philosophicalness. Glenn Beck is not unfair to his political adversaries. He has unfairness to the people who have political adversariness with him. President Obama is not bad at speaking without a teleprompter. He has badness at speaking without a teleprompter. I shouldn't say that I am Christian. I'm a person who has Christianity. I shouldn't be identified with my faith. I should claim, rather, to possess the entirety of Christianity, as if it belongs to me. We need to avoid identifying people with any property ascribed to them other than personhood. It's much better to say that they possess the entirety of the thing that formerly we would have used to describe them.

For more explanation, please see here (except you can ignore the sections explaining how people with blindness and people with deafness have offendedness at the obviously-correct way to refer to them, and you certainly shouldn't read person-with-autism Jim Sinclair's reasons for disliking person-first language).

I've firmly occupied the middle ground in the so-called inclusive language translation debates. Both sides have a point, and good translation needs to take both factors into account. There are things I like about how several recent translations do things, but no translation philosophy has gotten it quite right. I'm firmly convinced that the English language is changing, and there's no going back. In certain quarters it's changed enough that certain English speakers simply can't hear the so-called non-inclusive language as meaning what it once meant (when such language was actually inclusive: hence my use of "so-called" before speaking of the new style as "inclusive"). But I also think the complaints of sexism in the mere use of grammatically-masculine pronouns for gender-indeterminate or gender-unknown referents are exaggerated and overblown.

My main concern is not with the intrinsic worth of either way of translating. There's probably a place for both, with each serving a populace more comfortable with that translation method. But this should be non-absolute. A translation must have a tendency that it can go against, because there are cases where the method you predominantly use can obscure what the text says if you do it in a way that the other audience picking up the translation might hear wrongly, and I don't mean in interpreting "sons" to be only male or "he" to be only male. I mean in just hearing the text to say something it doesn't say in other ways.

The ESV of II Kings 23:10 reads:

And he defiled Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, that no one might burn his son or his daughter as an offering to Molech.

To someone used to the use of "his" as a gender-inclusive pronoun, this is no problem. Josiah is the referent of the first "he". Josiah defiles Topheth so that no one might burn their own son or daughter. The way I just put it is the more contmporary way of saying it, and it precludes thinking that Josiah is worried about people burning Josiah's own son or daughter. But the way the ESV translates it, someone used to the more contemporary, so-called inclusive translations is going to think Josiah is scared to death of people going after his son or daughter, and so he defiles Topheth to prevent it. When I hear the ESV translation, it's the first thing I think, and I know better. Someone unfamiliar with the storyline is going to be pretty confused.

So I conclude that the ESV, in its consistent refusal to hear how contemporary English-speakers of my generation will hear a text like this, is actually translating in a way that conveys the wrong meaning. This is thus a mistranslation for a certain segment of the population (a growing segment). There are examples that go the other way, where the insistence on the so-called inclusive language obscures some important aspect of the meaning of a text. But this particular example is the kind of thing that gets ignored in Bible translation, and I thought it was worth drawing attention to it.

In every translation I've read of Aquinas' discussion of love, I find a completely worthless translation of the two categories of love he discusses. If you translate them with a formal-equivalence model, you get "the love of desire" and "the love of friendship". What he means by those is that the love of desire is when you love someone or something for the benefit you get from it or them, and the love of friendship is when you love someone in a way that takes what they desire as becoming among your own desires, and you desire it for its own sake and not just to get something out of them.

To an English speaker, the expressions "the love of desire" and "the love of friendship" suggest no such thing. They sound more like the thing you love is desire for the first, and the thing you love is friendship for the second. A much better translation would be "desire-love" and "friendship-love". Those preserve the connection with desire and friendship rather than paraphrasing them, but they change the form of the grammatical construction in order to remove the different sense that the form carries in English.

A formal-equivalence translation has this danger. It preserves the form as a higher priority than the basic meaning of the expression in its context, and you get this kind of misleading nonsense that someone teaching the material then has to explain. Isn't it better just to translate the expression in a way that conveys its meaning? If this can be done without altering the basic linguistic units, as my translation above does, then that's ideal. The problem with most dynamic-equivalence or thought-for-thought translations is that they don't do that. They might translate this as something like "self-seeking love" and "unconditional love". Such a translation would make no sense of Aquinas' attempt to explain why love having to do with desire is self-seeking and why love having to do with friendship is unconditional. It doesn't translate what's said but adds to it based on the background knowledge about how Aquinas is using the terms. It's probably rare that you can find the happy medium that I've come to with this case, where you avoid both extremes, but that seems to me to be the goal.

Help Meet

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In the KJV and some translations that it's influenced, Genesis 2:18 describes Eve as "a help meet for" Adam. Somehow this has come into English as a noun "helpmeet", which (judging by how it was used in circles I grew up in) seems to mean "helpmate" or something like that. Since I hardly ever use the KJV, I don't look at this expression all that much, and it never occurred to me until recently that this understanding of "help meet" completely misunderstands the language of the KJV, which actually translated the Hebrew very well into the languge of the day but completely misleads the reader of today, as is so often the case with archaic translations.

What the KJV says is "I will make her a help meet for him." In archaic English, "meet" in such a context means "fitting" or "suitable". She is a helper who is meet for him. She is fitting for him, well-suited to him. That's exactly what the Hebrew says. To garble this as a noun "helpmeet" completely obscures the point (not to mention sounds meaningless to most speakers of English who weren't raised on the KJV).


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The word 'type' is a self-antonym.

As used in Christian theology, a type is something that looks forward or back to an anti-type. The usual idea is that the type is a partial or incomplete reality looking toward a more complete reality. So David is a type of Jesus as a precursor of a Messiah with some messianic elements, or the temple is a type of Christ as taking a form that looked forward to what he would institute in the church. The temple is also a type of the church (the people, not the building), where the church is God's dwelling.

I was listening to a Bloggingheads conversation between John McWhorter and Glenn Loury, and McWhorter used the term 'type' in this way. He said Jesse Jackson is a type, meaning that he exemplifies some elements found within a generalized group of black leaders.

In philosophy, a type is not the specific instance, where someone has some elements of some general form. The type is the general form, and the tokens are the specific instances. The type would be black leaders of a certain sort, and Jesse Jackson would be the token.

I don't think it's just immersion in philosophical circles for 15 years that makes me think the philosophical use is the closer of the two to ordinary usage. I've always found the theological use to be strange, but it's only just occurred to me that it's not just strange but backwards. Every time I hear someone use it in a sermon without explaining it, I think the ordinary person isn't going to get it, and it's just occurred to me why. If you say David is a type of Christ, people will think that means he's a kind of Christ. In loose usage, that doesn't mean he's a category rather than a person, but theologians who say such things don't remotely mean that David's a messiah. They mean he's a precursor of the Messiah.

I don't think the ordinary usage is exactly opposite the theological usage, but this kind of funny use, which becomes second-nature for some with a lot of theological training, is at odds with how most people will hear the term, and that's something preachers would do well to keep in mind.


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"Faith, to hear most people talk about it, and certainly in a religious context, is the permission that people give one another to believe things for bad reasons, and when they have good reasons they immediately rely on the good reasons." -- Sam Harris on NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday a few weeks ago

On one level, this is complete nonsense. My faith is not my giving anyone permission to believe things. If I have faith, that's trust in God, not permission for others to believe things. I'm not sure why Harris thinks it has to do with your attitude toward others' beliefs. No one really believes that, and I would include Harris in that.

But what he's saying reflects a common attitude toward what faith is. Perhaps he's even right that in most contexts the English word turns out to mean something to do with believing things without good reasons (which isn't the same as believing things for bad reasons, I would insist). That's at least how many people have used the term since Kierkegaard's corruption of the concept of faith.

This is not, however, how faith has historically been thought of. Augustine saw it as a kind of knowledge, just not one based in the usual sources. Its grounding comes from God and his role in giving us the faith. Thomas Aquinas distinguished it from knowledge but saw it as equally well-grounded as knowledge, just from a different source. Both of them, in fact, took the Bible to be God's word, and thus they took it to be a reliable source to get the information God wanted to convey. God is, in fact, the most reliable source of any information, and thus believing what God says is a pretty good method to get beliefs. Those who don't accept the Bible as God's word would not accept that conclusion, but what they say follows from accepting that about the Bible. The Bible itself takes faith to be simply trust in God and what God says, and it does not treat faith as some irrational acceptance of things we probably shouldn't believe.

There are plenty of debates about whether religious beliefs can be justified or warranted and how they could be if they can. I certainly have my views on that. But there's a problem before you even get to that point. There seems to be a huge discrepancy between what a lot of religious people mean when they talk about faith and what most people mean when they talk about faith. Several recent Bible translations pick up on this and use only terms of the belief-family and trust-family for the biblical words usually translated into the faith-family of English words. I think there's something to that. But might this not be a fight worth having? Sometimes it's worth giving up a term because of the confusion about what it might mean. Do we want to give up on the faith-family of terms?

We probably don't need the term, but if we give up on it there's at least one unfortunate consequence. People will completely misunderstand much of the tradition, including Bible translations that use it in the traditional way. So I'm not ready to give up on it. It's a bit of work to explain ourselves when we use the term, and it will take work to convince those who are out of touch on this point that they actually need to do that, but it's work worth engaging in, in my view.


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Joe Carter points to an interview with sociologist Rodney Stark (who is not a historian, despite often being called a historian of religion) that complains about the use of the word "mainline" in the expression "mainline Protestant denominations". This term usually refers to the more liberalizing denominations within each major Protestant grouping. So for Presbyterians, it means the PC-USA. For Methodists, it's the United Methodists. For Baptists, it's the American Baptists. For Lutherans, it's the similarly-ironically-named Evangelical Lutherans (who are much less evangelical than the Missouri Synod). Episcopals are usually seen as part of this group, and the United Church of Christ is also commonly included.

Stark's point, which Joe agrees with, is that these groups aren't really mainstream anymore. They're dying off. As they shed central and historic beliefs of Christianity, they become less mainstream within Christianity. I fully agree with that observation, but I think it's a mistake to complain about the use of the term "mainline".

What's going on here, as I see it, is that the term "mainline denominations" no longer functions as a description. It functions as a name. So in terms of the semantics of the expression, it doesn't really matter that it's ceased to be informative. It's like complaining that you park in driveways and drive on parkways. It's an interesting irony in the etymology of such terms, but it's not a problem with the language. Names often originate in circumstances that make their etymology seem ironically opposite to their current reference. The problem is not that anyone uses the term to refer to the groups it refers to. The problem is if they, in so doing, think they're using the name as a description rather than as a name.

It's wrong to think the mainline denominations are all that mainstream. I suppose it's true that they're closer in their ethical and theological outlook to secular America than the more evangelical congregations and denominations are, but there's enough counter-cultural Christianity present that large swathes of them are not mainstream in that sense. But they're not as mainstream Christianity as the more evangelical congregations and denominations are (and when I say "more evangelical" I mean it; it comes in degrees). Stark is right about that. But that doesn't make it illegitimate to continue to use the name for the group it's come to refer to any more than it's wrong to continue to use the name "Rhode Island" to refer to the entire state, even though it originally was only ever meant to refer to the island that constitutes Newport, Portsmouth, and Middletown. The name has come to refer to the entire state, and its inaccuracy as a description doesn't change the fact that it does refer to the whole state.

Attorney General

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from Wikipedia on Attorney general, commenting on one of my pet peeves:

Some people think the word "general" used in that way entitles the official to the honorific "general", but this is strictly only appropriate for military generals. The word "general" in "attorney general" is an adjective modifying "attorney". However, in the Supreme Court of the United States, the Attorney General of the United States and Solicitor General of the United States (for which office the same rule applies) are addressed as "General" by the Chief Justice. The plural of "attorney general" is "attorneys general." The history of the term dates back to Norman England when many of the French legal terms were imported into English common law. In French, the adjective often comes after the noun and so Attorney General meant General Attorney.

It's maddening that so many people insist on treating this as a rank like in the military, just because the word adjective "general is used". It makes no sense to address the U.S. Attorney General as General Holder, for example, given that he isn't being said to be a general of the U.S. attorneys but rather simply to be the U.S. attorney responsible for the government in general. You'd think the plural form "attorneys general" would signal to people that the word "general" is an adjective here.

But I think this is one of many cases where people are trying so hard to do something they see as correct but largely unrecognized that they end up being incorrect. (Another example would be those who use expressions like "Phil and I" as the object of a sentence after being told that you don't say "me and Phil", not realizing that it's only in a subject that you don't say "me and Phil" and that it's actually correct to say "me and Phil" in standard English.)

Direct discourse reports what someone said with an exact quote. Biblical authors almost always never intend exact quotation. They use indirect discourse, reporting the basic content of what's said rather than the actual words used. When the biblical author is reporting in translation (as most of the gospel accounts do), this is even a translation of a summary of the actual words.

There's a common way of reporting indirect discourse by summary in the Hebrew scriptures that the ESV handles by expressions like "thus and so". It usually occurs to avoid repetition. Biblical Hebrew often reiterates something very closely for emphasis or for structural reasons. Sometimes it does so to show that a prophecy or command is being fulfilled exactly as given. But sometimes the author sees no need to repeat everything again. So you'll see these cases where someone will be told something who then reports it to someone else, and the second occurrence is something like, "and he told me thus and so". I noticed an interesting occurrence where that may be going on, but it may be something else.

1 Then Elisha the prophet called one of the sons of the prophets and said to him, "Tie up your garments, and take this flask of oil in your hand, and go to Ramoth-gilead. 2 And when you arrive, look there for Jehu the son of Jehoshaphat, son of Nimshi. And go in and have him rise from among his fellows, and lead him to an inner chamber. 3 Then take the flask of oil and pour it on his head and say, 'Thus says the Lord, I anoint you king over Israel.' Then open the door and flee; do not linger."

4 So the young man, the servant of the prophet, went to Ramoth-gilead. 5 And when he came, behold, the commanders of the army were in council. And he said, "I have a word for you, O commander." And Jehu said, "To which of us all?" And he said, "To you, O commander." 6 So he arose and went into the house. And the young man poured the oil on his head, saying to him, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, I anoint you king over the people of the Lord, over Israel. 7 And you shall strike down the house of Ahab your master, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord. 8 For the whole house of Ahab shall perish, and I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. 9 And I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah. 10 And the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the territory of Jezreel, and none shall bury her." Then he opened the door and fled.

11 When Jehu came out to the servants of his master, they said to him, "Is all well? Why did this mad fellow come to you?" And he said to them, "You know the fellow and his talk." 12 And they said, "That is not true; tell us now." And he said, "Thus and so he spoke to me, saying, 'Thus says the Lord, I anoint you king over Israel.'" 13 Then in haste every man of them took his garment and put it under him on the bare steps, and they blew the trumpet and proclaimed, "Jehu is king."[II Kings 9:1-13, ESV]

In verse 12, Jehu uses an expression that for all I can tell can be an instance of the above phenomenon. The author may simply be saving us some time by not reiterating everything the prophet had told Jehu, and the sense is that Jehu explained it all to them but that we're not going to have to hear it all explicitly. So when he says, "Thus and so he spoke to me" it means he actually told them the prophet's words or summarized them more fully than we see, but we only get "Thus says the Lord, I anoint you king over Israel". We're getting discourse within discourse. The author is reporting what Jehu says, and Jehu is reporting what the prophet had said, and it's possible the "thus and so" is an abbreviation of what Jehu says.

On the other hand, it seems just as possible to me (and perhaps the Hebrew precludes either option, but I don't know enough to know about that) that the "thus and so" is intended more like a direct quote from Jehu, and he is using it himself to abbreviate what the prophet said. Jehu has already shown his reluctance to tell his army buddies what went on, so it wouldn't be surprising for him to brush off their question by a quick summary, giving them the basic point that he's now been anointed king but leaving aside his responsibility to eliminate Ahab's house and the specific details of what will happen to Jezebel.

So if this expression is functioning the way I think it's functioning, then there's no semantic reason to prefer seeing it as Jehu's abbreviation of what the prophet said in order to brush off their question or the author's abbreviation of what Jehu said in order to spare us the repetition. There may be contextual clues that make one more likely, but it seems to me to be a semantic ambiguity that stems from the particular way this expression functions, and the Hebrew language (as far as I know) lacks a modifier to tell us whether direct or indirect discourse is going on, and so we can't (again, as far as I know) be sure just from the grammar which is intended. It does slightly affect the interpretation of the passage, since it may be another instance of Jehu's reluctance to embrace the kingship and/or his mission to eliminate Omri's dynasty, or it may just be an instance of the narrator sparing us a speech that repeats what we'd just heard.

If anyone who knows Hebrew has any information that helps here, I'd love to hear it.


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My post on slaves and sons reminded me of a point I've been thinking that I don't think I've ever discussed with anyone or written anything about. The term "gender-inclusive" has come to be associated with a certain translation philosophy in Bible translation, namely the translation philosophy that considers it accurate to translate terms referring to multiple genders only with terms that in contemporary English can apply to multiple genders. In other words, using "he" to refer to a gender-unknown or gender-unspecified person or using "sons" to refer to a gender-mixed group would not be gender-inclusive.

It strikes me, however, that the term "gender-inclusive" is actually ambiguous, and the translations that use "sons" for a gender-mixed group or "he" to refer to a gender-unspecified or gender-unknown person are actually the gender-inclusive ones in one sense of the term. After all, they're using usually-masculine terms in a gender-inclusive way, right? They're using a sometimes gender-specific term in a gender-inclusive way. So why is it the opposite approach that always gets to be called gender-inclusive?

[cross-posted at Evangel]


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Sophia: Ethan, stop arguing.
Ethan: We're not arguing. We're bickering.
Sophia: Ethan, bickering means arguing.
Ethan: Yeah, but we're still not arguing. We're bickering.

Later in the day...

me: So, Ethan, what's the difference between bickering and arguing?
Sophia: They're not the same?
Ethan: Yes, they are!

Sons and Slaves

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It's rare that I post on something I encounter that I have almost nothing to say about, but I was just catching up on Mark Heath's blog, and this post struck me as brilliant. Mark notices all the slave language and son language in the New Testament for believers and wonders what's going on with followers of Jesus being adopted into God's family but then called slaves of Christ. How can believers be both adopted members of the family and slaves to the master?

Mark wonders which is more fundamental or which is the way we should more strongly think of ourselves. But then he notices something that makes such a question seem completely in the wrong direction. He observes that the primary way God is addressed is as Father, and the primary way Jesus is addressed is as Lord. He thus suggests that we should think of ourselves primarily as sons* with respect to the Father and slaves with respect to the Son.

What's striking to me about this is that I think most Christians think of the Father as sort of a more distant figure to respect and pray more formally to, whereas the Son is more down-to-earth (literally; pun intended) and brotherly. The way the first two persons of the Trinity are addressed in the scriptures, however, is backwards from that. Now of course the very fact that we are told to address the Father as Father is a lot more significant than most of us reflect on. The immense privilege implicit in the first two words of the Lord's Prayer means we've been told outright how we should see God the Father, at least in terms of our praying, and it's not so much as a master as as a parent*. That tells us something about God and his attitude toward us.

OK, so I didn't have nothing to say about this. That's something. But I think Mark's observation is pretty interesting, and I didn't intend to have anything to add myself.

[*Note on inclusive language: I deliberately use the masculine here, because "sons" in NT usage would culturally have included far more in terms of inheritance and status than "daughters" or "children". That this term is applied, in my view, suggests that women who are children of the Father are treated fully as sons would have been expected to be treated, and I think something gets lost if it is translated more inclusively, at least for readers who understand this about the ancient Hebrew and Greco-Roman cultures. So I prefer to keep the gender-inclusive "sons" that is jarring in contemporary English if meant inclusively, since pretty much no one talks that way outside uber-traditionalist hyper-formal-equivalence translation circles.]

[Note on apparent typo: Yes, I know there's an extra "as" there, but it's actually correct with it and incorrect without it. I couldn't resist.]

[cross-posted at Evangel]

On a paper or exam last semester (I don't remember which), a student described someone who might "prepare for death by amending for their sins". My first guess as to the student's intent was that they meant "atoning for their sins". But why choose this word to confuse with "atoning"? I suspected maybe it had to do with making amends, something that seemed to me to be foreign to the idea of atonement, which (according to biblical teaching as I understand it) isn't accomplished by you. You don't atone for your sins. It's something that has to be done on your behalf, whereas making amends is something you do for someone else.

But this was probably a Roman Catholic student, probably raised with a simplistic understanding of what Catholicism teaches (given the bulk of the student body where I teach). Perhaps it's less strange to connect atonement with making amends if you think you earn your own atonement by doing good works, as I think a lot of nominal Catholics think their church teaches (it doesn't quite; at least, it's not as simple as that, because of the strong view of God's grace that stands behind any good work that God brings people to do). If you're thinking of working to repay God for your sins or something crazy like that, then you might think atoning is something like making amends to God for all the bad you've done. Someone of that mindset might easily confuse the two concepts.

But suppose you were to take this at face value. What would it even mean? I would understand grammatically what it would mean to amend your sins. You add something to them. I'm not sure if that would be good or bad, since it might be amending your sins by complicating them with further sins, or it could be amending your sins by removing some of the sinfulness. But amending for your sins? Amending what for your sins? Don't you need a direct object? It's at least grammatical to speak of amending an essay for my sins, but I'm not sure what it would even mean to amend for my sins without a direct object.


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student comment in response to the idea that there might be a bad afterlife for bad people:

Furthermore, it is hard to believe that a higher being would wish for the suffrage of mankind, because any higher being would be above that and not involve themselves in petty nonsense.

I agree that a higher being would be above giving us suffrage. After all, wouldn't a higher being know better than us? Giving us a voting role in ultimate decisions wouldn't really serve any good. I don't see how it would be petty, though, and I don't see how this point supports the idea that there couldn't be a bad afterlife. That a higher being would be above giving us suffrage actually supports the possibility of a bad afterlife despite our protests, since it doesn't matter whether we approve.

Wood for the Trees

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In the U.K., people often speak of losing the big picture because of the details by saying that someone can't see the wood for the trees. Usually in the U.S., we say "forest for the trees". It's long occurred to me that the U.K. way of saying it conveys exactly the opposite here as it does across the pond.

In the U.K., a natural way to refer to a wooded area is to call it "the wood". That means the wood is a level up from the trees in terms of big picture vs. details. But in the U.S. you would never say "the wood" unless you meant the material that makes up the bulk of the tree's matter. To refer to a wooded area, you'd call it "the woods". So when you compare the wood with the trees in the U.S., you're actually talking about the tree and what it's made out of rather than a bunch of trees and the forest they comprise. That means the wood as heard in the U.S. is smaller and more detailed than the trees. The trees are a level up in terms of details vs. big picture.

So if you say someone can't see the wood for the trees, I always do a double-take, because it always sounds to me, at least at the initial hearing, as if you're describing someone who can't see the details because of some rigid big-picture view that they can't get away from. I'm familiar enough with the expression now that I quickly adjust, but it's a very weird phenomenon. This expression first conveys to me the exact opposite of what it means.


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I previously posted my worries about the glossary entry for the word 'gay' in Elizabeth Meyer's Gender, Bullying, and Harassment. I'm worried about the following entry also, for several reasons:

Heterosexism: A bias toward heterosexuality that denigrates and devalues GLB people. Also, the presumption that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality or prejudice, bias, or discrimination based on these things.

The first thing to notice is that this is a disjunctive definition. It lists three different things, any of which it will count as heterosexism. This isn't problematic in itself. There are plenty of words that can apply to a number of different things. Some of them are due to plain old ambiguity, e.g. the word 'bank' can mean a financial institution or the sandy shoreline alongside a river. More often a term can refer to several phenomena that all fit under the same category.

What might generate more of a problem is when a term is defined to refer to a number of different phenomena that are sufficiently different and should not be confused with each other. This isn't necessarily a problem, though. For instance, there are plenty of things the word 'homicide' can refer to, and they've of a pretty diverse sort. A homicide could be a cold-blooded, premeditated murder, or it could be an unplanned violent killing in the heat of an argument. It could be criminal but accidental manslaughter, or it could be excusable self-defense. In all cases, someone has been killed, and thus it counts as a homicide, which etymologically and in actual contemporary usage simply means the killing of a person by someone else.

Where it becomes more problematic is if the word you choose to use for this is loaded in such a way that its very usage carries the sense that anything it applies to is equally wrong. This is a new enough term that I think it's fair to say that people who are using it as Meyer does are in fact in the process of coining the term and determining its meaning by how it's used. The fact that it's deliberately a parallel with words like 'sexism' and 'racism' is important here. I suspect Meyer, and those whose consensus she wants to represent in her glossary of how such terms are used, wants all three things she lists to be seen as serious as racism and sexism are. The problem is that a case can be made that they're not. Let's separate the different meanings.

A: A bias toward heterosexuality that denigrates and devalues GLB people
B: the presumption that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality
C: prejudice, bias, or discrimination based on these things.

It seems to me that anyone satisfying meaning A is engaging in pure evil, but meanings B and C can range over a wide enough range of things that they don't belong in the same category at all. Some of that wide range is clearly morally problematic (perhaps stemming from something like what meaning A is getting at). Some of it is simply a matter of empirical discovery, but some of it involves moral judgment.


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I'm reading through the glossary in Elizabeth Meyer's Gender, Bullying, and Harassment, which I've been reading for an invited book review, and I noticed something that seemed odd to me in the definition for 'gay':

The preferred term for a person who engages in same-sex relationships and identifies as a member of this community. It is preferred to the term homosexual, which has scientific meanings that apply specifically to same-sex behaviors and does not consider a person's identities and relationships. Gay can refer to both men and women, although many women prefer the term lesbian.
Now I can think of three different things that could be distinguished here:

1. The sexual orientation: to use Meyer's own glossary definition, "the genders and sexes to which a person is emotionally, physically, romantically, and erotically attracted" -- such as homosexual, bisexual, omnisexual, heterosexual, and asexual -- and is informed by innate sexual attraction." This is a factual issue about which kinds of people the person is attracted to.

2. The identity: how someone identifies themselves in relation to sexual orientation. This isn't the same as sexual orientation, which is a question about who someone is attracted to. It's a question of how the person defines themself.

3. The behavior: how someone acts with respect to people of different genders or sexes. e.g. actually engaging in romantic and/or sexual relationships, making efforts to pursue such relationships, and so on.

I know people who would consider themselves homosexual according to sexual orientation as it's defined in 1 but who do not see their identity defined that way and in fact want to resist it. It's not clear that they are gay in the sense of Meyer's definition. This observation is completely independent of the moral question of whether they should resist it. They in fact try to, which means they don't identify as gay according to how Meyer defines that term.

What I find odd is that they also don't count as homosexual, the way Meyer defines that in the definition of 'gay' above, but they do count as homosexual by the definition of 'sexual orientation' in 1. If they are celibate or engage in heterosexual relationships (two men I know in this category are heterosexually married and, as far as I know, faithful to their wives), despite that not being their innate preference, then they do not participate in homosexual behavior as in 3. They merely have the attraction as their primary attraction, simply 1. The definition of 'sexual orientation' in 1 specifically allows for this possibility. But the definition of 'gay', which excludes it, also excludes it from what it says about the term 'homosexual', which it says "has scientific meanings that apply specifically to same-sex behaviors and does not consider a person's identities and relationships".

So is being homosexual a matter of sexual orientation, as in 1, or is it a matter of behaviors as Meyer distinguishes it from being gay in her definition of 'gay'? Or is the term ambiguous between the two and can sometimes mean one and sometimes the other? I thought I knew what it meant, but now I'm not so sure if she's capturing an important use of it that I haven't noticed before. If that's so, then perhaps we need to make distinctions clearer and figure out a term for the sexual orientation that doesn't imply anything about behavior.

Ethan's speech pathologist sent home his report from his evaluation for his upcoming triennial review. Two things about it seem a little strange.

1. One of the tests aimed to discover how well Ethan uses appropriate pronouns. The speech pathologist seems to acknowledge this particular problem. The report says:

On many occasions, Ethan provided an appropriate response to the given sentence, however since it was not the targeted response, credit was not allowed (e.g Ethan was shown a picture of a school choir and given the sentence "the choir has a song to sing -- who will sing a song". Ethan replied with "the choir", however the targeted response was "they will").

In ordinary English, "the choir" is actually a more natural response to that question than "they will". Ethan's response is actually superior to the officially-accepted one, taking just the question in isolation. Only if you know that the rules of the game expect you to respond with a sentence including a pronoun will you prefer "they will". Even then, it sounds sort of artificial, but a student who understands the pragmatics of the conversation might do all right on this question. A student with problems involving the pragmatics of conversation will almost certainly not. Ethan has problems with the pragmatics of conversation, which means this question will not test what it's supposed to be testing, which is the proper use of pronouns, but rather the pragmatic ability to discover the conversational rules of the language game being played. So this seems to be a badly-designed test. I wonder how the rest of the test is. This is the only example she gave.

2. Another test involved recognizing semantic absurdities. Presumably with an eight-year-old kid they won't be asking things on the level of the liar paradox, but I would hope they could do better than the example the speech pathologist gave in her report. She says that he couldn't recognize that the sentence, "The plumber fixed the lights" is silly. I can't either. My uncle was a plumber, and he probably fixed lights at some point in his life. He did own his own house, after all. That sentence is perfectly meaningful, and there's nothing absurd about it. I could see how this would be a nice sentence to test actual understanding of semantic absurdity, because some kids might be fooled into thinking that it's semantically absurd, when it's not. But the test actually has it doing the opposite. The kids who can see that it's a meaningful sentence come out with a lower score for vocabulary recognition.

The speech pathologist concludes, "This indicates that Ethan demonstrated difficulty understanding the target words in the sentences that were used incorrectly." Maybe there were other sentences where that's true, but this example shows nothing of the sort. Ethan knows full well what the word "plumber" means, and that's the most difficult word in the sentence. One of the tests the psychologist gave to him during this process tested his vocabulary at the level of the second half of sixth grade (he's in third). His problem wasn't that he doesn't understand the vocabulary in the sentence but that he knows something the test designers didn't, which is that the sentence in question is perfectly meaningful in English and could easily be used without anything silly going on. Unlike the first example, the speech pathologist didn't seem to recognize this fact.

Update: I should say that I accept that you can derive an absurdity from this second example, if you provide a particular context, e.g. if you're told that the plumber is carrying out a job as a hired plumber and doing only that job. If you say enough that someone who understands English fully competently, together with the pragmatic rules of conversation, will understand all that information, then perhaps such a person would think such information tells against thinking the plumber will be fixing lights. But that's precisely my point. You need a pragmatic context to derive the absurdity, and this isn't a test of pragmatics but of semantic absurdities. There's nothing semantically absurd about that sentence.

Law & Order

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Has anyone else ever thought that they get the Law and Order categories backwards in the credits for Law & Order? They list the police detectives, who enforce order, under the heading Law, and then they list the lawyers, who deal with the law more explicitly, under the category of Order.

I suspect this comes from the old slang method of referring to cops as "the law", so it's not without explanation, but it does seem backwards to me in terms of the actual roles of the various characters.

In The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis unwittingly provides evidence for a thesis that I think is likely to be true but isn't the sort of thing that you'll find much evidence for, one way or the other. The claim I have in mind is that singular "they" or "their" is not precisely gender-neutral. At least I'd say that the conditions under which it's most commonly used (and thus feels most natural) are sensitive to one kind of gender concern, and there are some instances where it would seem awkward to use it when you know you're speaking of one person whom you and the audience hearing you know the person is male. I think this is true to the point where I almost always assume that someone using it of an individual person to disguise the person's gender is almost certainly talking about a woman or girl.

I think it's well-established now that singular "they" has a long history in the English language and is not the result of feminist machinations in the last few decades, as I've heard some claim. It occurs in the King James Bible and in Shakespeare, so there's no arguing that it's a recent innovation. I also discovered it in C.S. Lewis, but what was interesting to me is that he doesn't use it consistently. He has two very similar sentences in two scenes near the end of the book, one from Aslan to Shasta and the other from Aslan to Aravis. When walking alongside Aslan to Narnia, Shasta asks him why he wounded Aravis. Aslan's response:

"Child," said the Voice, "I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own."

Then later, when Aslan appears to Aravis, Bree, and Hwin, Aravis asks about what will happen to her servant because of her running away. His response:

"Child," said the Lion, "I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own."

Lewis, probably instinctively, refrains from using a generic male pronoun when generalizing from the initial case of a girl, when he did use the generic male pronoun when generalizing from the initial case of a boy. This isn't direct evidence exactly of my claim above, but it does suggest an unconscious gender-related difference in treatment in Lewis' writing, and remember that this book was published in 1952. He seems to have thought a singular "their" was inappropriate when the primary person being referred to was male but not when the primary person being referred to was female.

I noticed an interesting translation issue as I was reading Jerome Walsh's commentary on I Kings. The longstanding debate between favoring the grammatical form vs. favoring the sense of a text comes up full force in I Kings 11:1-4. Consider the NRSV translation of these verses:

King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the Israelites, "You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods"; Solomon clung to these in love. Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David.

Walsh makes the following comment in a footnote (p.134, n.2):

Hebrew uses the same word (nasim) where English has two different ones, "women" and "wives." The NRSV tries to capture the proper nuance to translate each case. My discussion tries to reflect the way nasim becomes a motif word in the Hebrew text.

Some people favor the sense over the form, most noticeable in translations sometimes called dynamic equivalence (e.g. in Bible translation, the NLT is a good example, and the NIV and TNIV tend in that direction often). One good thing about this kind of translation in cases like this is that you get to capture the nuance of the word in different contexts. The same Hebrew word can mean both "wife" and "woman". In different contexts, it might have the flavor of one of those rather than the other, and here it has each flavor a verse apart. If you translate them both the same way, that's harder to capture. In particular, if you talk about Solomon's women rather than Solomon's wives, in English you get the sense that it's talking about his harem. But then with Solomon you actually are talking about his harem, so maybe it's not that big a difference in his case. Still, one might argue for translating the word as "wives" in all of its occurrences so as to avoid that sense instead of translating it consistently as "women" the way Walsh does. You lose something either way, but you lose something if you translate it differently in different instances also.

I think it's easier to tell from the context what the sense might be, so it's less necessary in these verses to seek to distinguish between the senses the word can have by translating as the NRSV does, as one in one verse and the other in the other verse. What Walsh points out, though, is that you miss something important about this passage if you emphasize sense over form. The repetition of the word conveys something in the Hebrew that you lose in an English translation if it distinguishes between different senses the word can have throughout this passage. There's a literary element of the passage that the NRSV translates away.

This sort of thing often happens in the so-called dynamic translations. Translations that emphasize form, while sometimes missing elements that a sense-for-sense translation will convey, does capture some elements like this that you won't see in a translation like the NLT and often won't see even in the NIV or TNIV. There are those who regularly deride translations like the ESV or NASB as if they have no positive features as translations, seeing them as wooden artifacts of archaic language that barely make sense as English and are too hard for the average English speaker to understand. Whatever element of truth there is in that characterization, there are certainly things that the ESV and NASB preserve that you don't find in the sense-for-sense translations, and it's one reason I always like to have one around.

(The ESV does translate them the same way the NRSV does, as "women" and then "wives", I should note. This is a theoretical point about Bible translation, not an argument for a particular translation as a whole.)


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