Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody’s much interested anymore. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.

Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.

A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody?

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.

The grace of God means something like: “Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.

Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

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To understand how an Oberlin administrator could have used the word “safety,” we turn to an article published in 2016 by the Australian psychologist Nick Haslam, titled “Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology.” Haslam examined a variety of key concepts in clinical and social psychology—including abuse, bullying, trauma, and prejudice—to determine how their usage had changed since the 1980s. He found that their scope had expanded in two directions: the concepts had crept “downward,” to apply to less severe situations, and “outward,” to encompass new but conceptually related phenomena.

Take the word “trauma.” In the early versions of the primary manual of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), psychiatrists used the word “trauma” only to describe a physical agent causing physical damage, as in the case of what we now call traumatic brain injury. In the 1980 revision, however, the manual (DSM III) recognized “post-traumatic stress disorder” as a mental disorder—the first type of traumatic injury that isn’t physical. PTSD is caused by an extraordinary and terrifying experience, and the criteria for a traumatic event that warrants a diagnosis of PTSD were (and are) strict: to qualify, an event would have to “evoke significant symptoms of distress in almost everyone” and be “outside the range of usual human experience.” The DSM III emphasized that the event was not based on a subjective standard. It had to be something that would cause most people to have a severe reaction. War, rape, and torture were included in this category. Divorce and simple bereavement (as in the death of a spouse due to natural causes), on the other hand, were not, because they are normal parts of life, even if unexpected. These experiences are sad and painful, but pain is not the same thing as trauma. People in these situations that don’t fall into the “trauma” category might benefit from counseling, but they generally recover from such losses without any therapeutic interventions. In fact, even most people who do have traumatic experiences recover completely without intervention.

By the early 2000s, however, the concept of “trauma” within parts of the therapeutic community had crept down so far that it included anything “experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful . . . with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well—being.” The subjective experience of “harm” became definitional in assessing trauma. As a result, the word “trauma” became much more widely used, not just by mental health professionals but by their clients and patients—including an increasing number of college students.

As with trauma, a key change for most of the concepts Haslam examined was the shift to a subjective standard. It was not for anyone else to decide what counted as trauma, bullying, or abuse; if it felt like that to you, trust your feelings. If a person reported that an event was traumatic (or bullying or abusive), his or her subjective assessment was increasingly taken as sufficient evidence.

— Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind

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The best metaphors always give both a shock and a shock of recognition.

— Sallie McFague, as quoted in Wearing God by Lauren Winner

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Divine Lip Smackings

Capon on the Christian discussion of “The Will of God”:

No doubt this picture of will as coercive, as the ability to Impose Patterns and Make Decisions Stick, strikes you as more or less the traditional christian view. The church, perhaps, has seemed to you to have put into the words “the Will of God” about the same tone as “Kinder, you vill all enjoy your oatmeal—zis very minute!”

Admittedly, this preference for the more northerly, not to say Prussian, meanings has been widespread; but for all that, there is plenty of evidence in the tradition that the streets on the southern side of the plaza have been well used. Scholastic philosophy, for instance, defines will as “a rational appetite whose object is the good”—thus making God’s will a heavenly kind of appetite, a divine delectation. Followed just a little further, that gives you a will of God which, instead of being a chain of Divine Commands, is a series of Divine Lip Smackings. And that, of course, is nothing but what Genesis teaches on the subject: At the end of each of the six days of creation, God says, “Tov!”—which is Hebrew for “Mmm, good!”

I suggest, therefore, that if we want to get rid of some of the unpleasantness that has crept into people’s minds on the subject of the will of God, we should work the southern side of the plaza. I suggest we pay less attention to the military-academy snapshots people have habitually been carrying in their wallets, and more to those pictures which show a little warmth and toastiness: namely, Inclination, Desire, Wish, Appetite, Passion and Choice. Let us make ourselves a promise to talk for a while about the will of God as attractive rather than coercive, as a delighting more than a deciding.

That done, the rest is easy. There is no contest for the most promising set of images to do the job. Having left the Square of Will via the Street of Desire, we land smack in one of the most gorgeous parts of the city—the Grand Plaza of The Song of Songs: love as the right way to read will; will as the desire of the lover for the beloved.

The will of God now becomes, not the orders of a superior directing what a subordinate must do, but the longing of a lover for what the beloved is. It is a desire, not for a performance, but for a person; a wish, not that the beloved will be obedient, but that she will be herself—the self that is already loved to distraction. The will of God, seen this way, is not in order to something, but because of someone.

— Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox

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Now that I hardly ever spell out a word I do not know, and the things that puzzle me in books do not lie in individual words but in the author’s assumption of shared knowledge about the human heart (never my strong point), I still have, like everybody, words in my vocabulary that are relics of that time. The words we learned exclusively from having books infill their meaning for us, are the ones we pronounce differently from everyone else. Or, if we force ourselves to say them the public way, secretly we believe the proper pronunciation is our own, deduced from the page and not corrected by hearing the word aloud until it was too late to alter its sound. The classic is ‘misled’, said not as mis-led but as myzled — the past tense of a verb, ‘to misle’, which somehow never comes up in the present tense. In fact, misled never misled me. One of mine is ‘grimace’. You probably think it’s pronounced grimuss, but I know different. It’s grim-ace to rhyme with ‘face’. I’m sorry, but on this point, the entire English-speaking human race except me is wrong.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

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Whenever you use an image, you will do well to think of yourself as standing in the middle of a plaza—one plaza among the many in the vast city of meaning that is human knowledge. Off this plaza run streets in many directions. These streets are the several distinct meanings to be found in the image itself. While you stand still in the plaza, you see all the streets at once; but if you decide to use the plaza as a way station to some other place in the city, you have to choose a street—a particular meaning—and follow it. Some of these streets will take you straight to your destination. But others will get you there only by detours—sometimes through the worst parts of town. Others still will turn out to be blind alleys with assassins lurking in dark corners. When you think by means of images, therefore—when you try to get somewhere in the city of meaning—choose your street carefully before you leave one plaza in search of another.

A simple illustration first. The relationship between the first and the second Persons of the Trinity is expressed in christian theology in terms of the image Father/Son. Take that as the plaza in which we stand. Now look around and see what streets lead off it. Father/Son. Fathers come first; sons come second. Fathers are bigger; sons are smaller. Fathers and sons are not equal. How does that sound?

It sounds like a street which, if followed only a little further, would lead you straight into saying that the Father made the Son, and that the Son, therefore, isn’t really God. But that’s not where you want to go. You want to get to the plaza called God From God, Light From Light, True God From True God, located right at the end of One Substance Avenue. Look around for another way.

Father/Son. Fathers love sons; sons love fathers. Love between persons can be equal without having to be the same. Ah! That sounds more like it. That’s a street worth taking. Off we go: Paternal love/Filial love—and so on.

— Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox

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At the same time, I couldn’t read quite a lot of the words in The Hobbit. I had accelerated into reading faster than my understanding had grown. If I press my memory for the sensation of reading the second half of the book, when I was flying through the story, I remember, simultaneous with the new liquid smoothness, a constant flicker of incomprehensibility. There were holes in the text corresponding to the parts I couldn’t understand. Words like prophesying, rekindled and adornment had never been spoken in my hearing. No one had ever told me aloud to behold something, and I didn’t know that vessels could be cups and bowls as well as ships. I could say these words over, and shape my mouth around their big sounds. I could enjoy their heft in the sentences. They were obviously the special vocabulary that was apt for the slaying of dragons and the fighting of armies: words that conjured the sound of trumpets. But for all the meaning I obtained from them, they might as well not have been printed. When I speeded up, and up, and my reading became fluent, it was partly because I had learned how to ignore such words efficiently. I methodically left out chunks. I marked them to be sorted out later, by slower and more patient mental processes; I allowed each one to brace a blank space of greater or lesser size in its sentence; I grabbed the gist, which seemed to survive even in sentences that were mostly hole; and I sped on.

I could do this because written English is an extremely robust system. It does not offer the user a brittle binary choice between complete comprehension and complete incomprehension. It tolerates many faults, and still delivers some sense. The reasons why were spelled out in 1948, by Claude Shannon of the Bell Telephone Company, as an incidental consequence of his mathematical research into the capacity of phone networks. Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication has been fruitful for cryptography, the sciences of chaos, literary theory, and the design of the Internet. It can also be applied to a six-year-old reading The Hobbit. Functionally speaking, there is no difference between a phone call one-third obscured by static on the line, a manuscript one-third eaten by mice, and a printed page one-third of whose words you don’t know. Ignorance is just a kind of noise; and Shannon was interested in measuring how much of a message could be disrupted by the noise that’s inevitable on any channel of communication, before it became impossible to decipher it.

He showed that information, in certain respects, flows through a network like heat flowing in nature. Like the entropy of atoms dispersing into ever greater randomness, an information flow’s entropy could be measured, that is, the relative freedom every passing bit of information had to be any one of the symbols in the set that was in use, whether they were digits, or Morse dots and dashes, or letters of the alphabet. Conversely, it was possible to calculate how much of any information flow was not free to vary, since it was enforced by the structure of the message being transmitted. Suppose that the symbol set in question is the alphabet, and the message is being sent in English. After every letter q the next letter must be u. After every letter t the next letter is more likely to be h than any other; and may never be x. I comes before e except after c. All of these rules are expressions of the ‘redundancy’ in English, indications of the ways in which the structure of the written language makes it less than random, and so restricts the possibilities for each element.

Shannon used ‘redundant’ as a technical term. He did not mean that these rules were not essential to the intricate, delicate ways by which we convey meaning in writing. But the more highly structured a message was, the more its individual elements were indeed redundant in the sense that they could be dispensed with, and the more the message could be compressed, or edited, or subjected to electrical storms and mice and ignorance, without losing its intelligibility. If u invariably followed q, then u really added no extra information to q. U could therefore be taken away and nothing would be lost from the meaning. The person receiving the message — Shannon concluded — would be able to understand it adequately if noise removed any amount of the message up to the maximum redundancy built into the message by its structure. He did a quick statistical survey of written English, and calculated that it had a redundancy of about 50 per cent. Up to half of an English text could be deleted before doing such critical damage to its message that you’d give up and say Eh? A page of The Hobbit could have had Tipp-Ex rained down on up to half its words, or been cloven by dwarvish axes so long as it was not quite cloven in twain, and I would have been able to follow it. My mental blanking when the print spelled out a-d-o-r-n-m-e-n-t could not stop the flow of story from the book into my mind.

I found that the gaps in the text where I did not know words began to fill themselves in from the edges, as if by magic. It was not magic. I was beginning to acquire the refined and specialised sense of probability that a reader gets from frequent encounters with the texture of prose: not just the probabilities of which letters and words would follow each other that Shannon had studied, in his brief survey of language as one transmission system among many, but all the larger probabilities governing the shapes of paragraphs and chapters, all the way up to the over-arching rules — or meta-rules — of story itself, that grand repertoire of beginnings and middles and ends. Unknown words picked up meaning from the words around them; meanings that worked well enough in context, though sometimes I was completely wrong.

I remember there was an intermediate stage when strange words did not yet quite have a definite meaning of their own, but possessed a kind of atmosphere of meaning, which was a compromise between the meanings of all the other words which seemed to come up in conjunction with the unknown one, and which I had decided had a bearing on it. The holes in the text grew over, like this. The empty spaces thickened, took on qualities which at first were not their own, then became known in their own right.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

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