Tag Archives: words

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Why you must read Macarisms (if you don’t already)

Dave McDonald has been blogging his way through a battle with cancer – he’s apparently up to 80,000 words worth of reflecting on the fight, and his faith in Jesus as it goes on (hopefully for many years to come).

Dave has been faithfully serving Jesus in Canberra for many years. He’s a good, long term, family friend, a contemporary of my dad’s, and his blog is poignant, candid, and an incredible reminder of what this medium can be – it’s gospel centred and encouraging, it’s a must read for everybody, but of particular value for those who need to be reminded to pray for, and think of, those suffering from terminal or chronic illness, and thinking about how to care for, or experience, suffering when life goes in a different direction.

I’ve tried to write a post telling you to read his blog a couple of times – but words failed me. Which is, given the abundance of words stored in the archives of this blog, a surprise, for you and me both. The richness of Dave’s reflections, and the generosity of sharing them publicly, is something pretty special and encouraging.

His latest post – on the legacy of words that its increasingly possible for any modern person, especially a preacher, to build – is a fantastic example of the kind of things you’ll read at Macarisms

“I’m keen to leave my children, and my children’s children, a legacy with my words. It’s kind of nice that each of them currently follow the blog and they’ll be able to read back over things once I’m gone. It’s pretty special that they’ll even be able to listen to my voice if they download talks. But it’s the content of what I say that’s important. My prayer is that I’ll leave a legacy that flows from my words and is supported by my life. I desire to point beyond myself to the one and only God who loves each one of them. I want to share the good news of Jesus, his life, his words, his death, and his resurrection, and show them why I believe it. I want to speak about the goodness of God in the face of suffering and evil, and show the true joy that comes from confidence and contentment in God.”

I hope that what I write on my blog, and elsewhere, gives people a pretty good picture of who I am, but ultimately I hope that it’ll achieve the purposes Dave articulates in that quote. I want people to know Jesus.

He ends with a powerful reminder that God has left us a living legacy in the personification of his word – Jesus, and the good news of the gospel.

“I know that even if I were to write books and archive my talks in the safest of places, there will come a time when my words are no longer remembered. That’s just the way things go. But there are also some words that will never be wasted, words that will always achieve their purpose, words that will endure and live forever. The Apostle Peter wrote to Christians in the first century…

23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable,through the living and enduring word of God24 For,

“All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
25     but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

And this is the word that was preached to you.
(1Peter 1:23-25, my emphasis.)

Is meaning in the reading, or in the writing?

One of the interesting spin-offs of the great worship debate, both here, and elsewhere, is an argument about the use of words, and what gives words meaning.

There seem to be three approaches to language at play here, three ways of arguing about what language means…

1. The etymological approach – we can know what a word means based on what the word means, how it was developed, its origins, and if not that, at least by its dictionary definition.
2. The “reader decides” approach – a word means what a reader interprets it to mean. This is a bit post-modern. We all bring our own agendas to a text, and we interpret and use words accordingly. In a sense this argument, broadly understood, also incorporates the idea that usage dictates meaning. The way a word is commonly understood is the most legitimate, and in some cases, the only, way to interpret a word.
3. The “author decides” approach – a word is given meaning by the words around it. By the context. The genre. The implied or actual author, the implied reader (ie how the author wants the word to be read by his implied audience). This view sees the author’s intention as paramount in interpretation. A word means what the writer wants it to mean.

As a writer I like option 3. I think Shakespeare would agree. I think Christians with a high doctrine of inspiration of Scripture also have to be at least biased to that approach – while recognising that there are valid insights to be brought to the table by all three approaches. In fact, I think that each of these options, held as an extreme, produces logical fallacies.

The fallacy involved in the first is the “Etymological Fallacy” – it’s where we argue that language doesn’t change. We ignore the process of history and the expansion of definitions of words to include new things, or new concepts.

The fallacy involved in the second, or one of them, is the “illegitimate totality transfer” – a fallacy Don Carson identified where you bring in one meaning of a word and say that it’s the total meaning. This is also a problem that can occur with point 1, though we can also import our own personal preference for the meaning of a word into interpretation.

The third point doesn’t involve a fallacy that I’m familiar with – except that the writer can not reasonably expect the reader to know his/her brain. There must be a name for that fallacy. Anybody? It also seems that expecting a reasonable reader is also an unreasonable read of the world.

Fundamentally each approach above reads the text with an agenda – and the real question is whose agenda does a text serve? I’d say my bias is towards the third – because without a writer we don’t have a text in the first place. The text is the product of a writer’s intent, and it’s fair that we consider it in that framework. But, I think there are particular genres where that is, at best, ambiguous. While the experience of reading Shakespeare, and seeing what he wanted us to see, is rich and captures his artistry – it’s fair to say that his writing contains a fair degree of deliberate ambiguity – where he knows different readers are going to bring different agendas, or knowledge, to a text. It seems to me that the best writing does this. So Shrek, and the Simpsons, are examples from pop-culture where there are layers of meaning imbued in a text by the writer – acknowledging point 3. And puns regularly combine all three interpretive methods. Artistry does that.

Here are a couple of case studies – firstly – I used the words “old people” the other day as a bit of a rhetorical device, in apposition to the “angry young man”… the discussion on the post is informative because I basically failed to acknowledge the existence of points 1 or 2 – which meant what I thought, and intended, as art, wasn’t. But, I would suggest that most “exegetes” of my post failed to pay adequate heed to 3, ignoring both authorial intent, and context (on a blog, with a disclaimer).

Secondly, the worship debate itself – many of the arguments against using the word worship in a modern context commit either one of the two fallacies identified above, and, in my opinion, pay little regard to point three. Word studies are only really useful, in my opinion, for identifying the possible meaning of a word within its context – the meaning of the word is given by the way its used, it’s also a fallacy to say that a writer can’t create new meaning for a word through juxtaposing it with other ideas, or using it in a new context. That’s how language expands. It’s why the etymological fallacy is a fallacy. So with regards to worship – we’ve got the New Testament writers building on Old Testament traditions, and New Testament culture to create a paradigm by which the church could define itself and operate, under God. The original readers of the New Testament had different ideas of what the word “worship” might have meant to the ideas we import into it… the original authors of the New Testament had different ideas about what worship meant to their emperor-worshipping first century counterparts. Insisting on narrow etymological interpretations of a word pays no heed to the idea that the New Testament writers were artists, or creating something new, or good writers who drew pictures. And its weird to toss out words just because their definition has broadened, rather than just qualifying their meaning and trying to define them as the author intended.

Anyway. I’ll stop now.

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What Greek Teachers Won’t Tell You

When it comes to the Greek Language (at QTC at least) David Allen Black wrote the book. Literally. We use his introduction to Biblical Greek as our textbook. So I enjoyed this post of things your Greek teacher won’t tell you. If you haven’t got a Greek teacher then they’re still interesting. Sort of.

I think there’s some sort of double negative going on here. The list is a mix of Greek fallacies, and truths that you might not have heard. Anyway.

Here’s one of my favourite things from Greek (and Hebrew) this year.

“Greek words do not have one meaning. Yet how many times do we hear in a sermon, “The word in the Greek means…”? Most Greek words are polysemous, that is, they have many possible meanings, only one of which is its semantic contribution to any passage in which it occurs. (In case you were wondering: Reading all of the meanings of a Greek word into any particular passage in which it occurs is called “illegitimate totality transfer” by linguists.)”

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A word paints a thousand words

I found a new blog yesterday. Technology is a wonderful thing. Luke is another Taswegian. He mentioned one of my posts on Twitter (creating a trackback) and I found his blog, Post-Apocalyptic Theology.

It looks good. Taswegians make good blogs. There are some interesting posts there to mull over.

I like this one in which he asks:

“I wonder what are the smallest/standard units of communication in our culture and what are smallest/standard units the bible intends us to begin with, use and apply?”

In response to this post, which argues that we should never read a verse in isolation…

“I use this simple rule to help me answer the majority of Bible questions I’m asked, even when I’m totally unfamiliar with the verse. It’s an amazingly effective technique you can use, too.

I read the paragraph, not just the verse. I take stock of the relevant material above and below. Since the context frames the verse and gives it specific meaning, I let it tell me what’s going on.

This works because of a basic rule of all communication: Meaning always flows from the top down, from the larger units to the smaller units, not the other way around. The key to the meaning of any verse comes from the paragraph, not just from the individual words.

I posted this response to his question…

I reckon individual words are the base both culturally and theologically. But only because there are certain “heavy” words that are capable of carrying huge amounts of meaning. One word can summarise a thousand words… like calling God “father”.

Plus I’m on his blogroll – so that’s cool. Am I on yours without knowing it? Tell me people. Affirm me…

Retard retardent

I overuse the word retard. I understand it’s offensive to many people. I just like the way it sounds. Phonetically, rather than contextually. It’s such a dismissive and insulting word. Apparently it’s so insulting that it’s no longer politically correct to use it to describe people who are actually retarded (technically, literally retarded)… I didn’t know that. Now I do.

Here’s the problem with reinventing the wheel – as spelled out in one of those Slate articles…

But any psychologist will point out that changing the name is, in the end, folly. Whatever new term comes into favor today will seem insensitive, or worse, tomorrow. A nation of 10-year-olds has pretty much exhausted the pejorative power of "retarded" and is eagerly awaiting a new state-of-the-art insult. (The AAMR actually went through this before: In 1973, it switched its name from the American Association on Mental Deficiency to its current appellation because "deficiency" implied, well, deficiency. And retarded, at the time, did not.) The current frontrunner, "intellectual disability," even contracts nicely to ID, which can become a cousin of LD (for learning disability), which served as a choice epithet among the circles I ran in in fifth grade. Steven Warren, the president of the soon-to-be-differently-named AAMR, admits that whatever term his organization comes up with, all the little boys who have crushes on little girls and so call them "retarded" will be quick on its heels. In other words, the AAMR will almost certainly be going through an identity crisis again in 20 years, just to stay ahead of the game.

This also ties in nicely with my little treatise on swearing from a few weeks back.

Unserendipitous

Serendipity is a lucky coincidence, or making an accidentally fortunate decision. This must be the personification of its antithesis.

Woman who missed Flight 447 is killed in car crash.

“An Italian woman who arrived late for the Air France plane flight that crashed in the Atlantic last week has been killed in a car accident, it has been reported.”

Bugger.

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Green on the black list

There are a number of words I’d like to blacklist at work. Identified, sustainable, showcase… a bunch of buzzwords robbed of their meaning by overuse and the ability to fit into any context. I don’t like weasel words – and I recommend removing them from anything you write/produce/say lest you fall into a position where your colleagues play bingo based on the predictability of your speech.

The Lake Superior State University has published a list of banished words. They’re not arbitrarily selected. They give reasons. And also include popular, overused phrases. Words on the list include: green, first dude, bailout, maverick, carbon offset and others.

What words/phrases would you ban given the chance?

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A wordy post

Meriam Webster dictionary has released the 10 most frequently looked up words in 2008. In order they are:
Bailout, vet, socialism, maverick, bipartisan, trepidation, precipice, rogue, misogyny, turmoil…

Obviously some were influenced by the global economic crisis – like misogyny… others by the US election… like bailout. Obviously other people wanted to know where to send their dogs… Or, it could be that the American populace was wondering why Obama was so keen to vet his cabinet. English is a funny language. Why do you need a trained animal doctor to check out a piece of furniture?

Here’s how the list stacks up to previous years – where w00t, Facebook and others all appear. It’s an interesting way to track people’s thinking and concerns. And what they don’t know but are choosing to be educated about.

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Coming soon to a keyboard near you

I was all set to post a “word of the day” type post using the word dilettante – which is essentially a dabbler in the arts – but not an expert – when James sent an email containing a word/new punctuation mark that could revolutionise the way people express themselves. The “Interrobang” – not only does it have a cool name, it combines a question mark with an exclamation mark. Like so:

 I can see it having all sorts of applications in rhetorical questions. Seriously though, I hate exclamation marks. They are a tool of lazy writers. The in house style guide I wrote for work basically bans them. If you can’t express yourself significantly without telling the reader specifically that something requires emphasis – you shouldn’t be writing. Bolding and underlining are also right out. As is bold underlining.

I also had a long running battle with a guy from work who I will refer to only as the “Capital Punisher” – he knows who he is. Perhaps he’ll find this blog. Capitals, like exclamation marks, are right out – and should only be used for proper nouns and at the start of sentences.