Language Matters: “Name and Claim” Your Spot in the Christian Elite

Are you “born again”?  Have you been “saved” or know someone who is eagerly awaiting “The Rapture”?  These phrases, and others that have begun to appear in our language as Christian political-speak, may not mean what you think they mean.

Do you speak Christian? (CNN.com, July 31, 2011)

There is a particular vocabulary to Christianity, key phrases to clue in those in the know that you’re one of them.  When someone mentions “second blessings” or praying to “name and claim” something, they are speaking a kind of jargon that not only includes them in a specific religious group, but also excludes those who don’t understand their special meaning.

The problem, according to some theologians, is that many of these Christian-speakers have it all wrong.

For example, many Christians use the word “salvation” to mean being released from sin or going to heaven.  But salvation in the Bible actually refers to turning from injustice to justice, as when the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt.

What about the “Rapture”?  Many think that the Rapture is an event predicted in the Bible in which those who are righteous will bodily ascend to heaven just before the end of the world.  However, there are no mentions of an event like this in the Bible, and the phrase itself did not appear until the 19th century.

These phrases have even slipped into the world of politics, providing a powerful means for politicians to show their inclusion in clannish Christian groups and ingratiate themselves into those powerful voting blocs.

When George W. Bush mentioned the “wonder-working power” of the American people, he was deliberately using a phrase that is especially meaningful to evangelical Christians.  Adopting the language of an insular religious group is an effective way of reaching out to that group and implying that you understand them.

While some phrases can be lost from lack of use, they can also fall into meaninglessness through overuse.  Some evangelicals are even rejecting the term “Christian,” claiming that it is overly broad and connected to politics, preferring the term “Christ follower,” instead.

Shared language, including unique terminology and phrasing, is one of the most powerful cohesive factors in social groups.  When this shared vocabulary doesn’t mean what speakers think it does, or when the meanings change over time, the social groups and what they believe also change.

Changing the language of Christianity is changing Christianity itself.

What do you think?  Have these religious words lost their meanings because of their constant use (or misuse) in political circles?  Or are they more powerful than ever?  Let us know in the comments!

Language Matters: Proud to be a Slut

Some words provoke instant and strong reactions, affecting us at a deep, almost visceral level.  And when those words are challenged and their meanings turned upside down, it’s hard not to take notice.

The power of a word: Reclaiming “slut” (BBC, 9 May 2011)

It’s one of those words that doesn’t quite qualify as profanity, but you still probably wouldn’t want to use it at the dinner table.

Slut.

Originally, the term was used to describe slovenly or dirty women, and evolved to mean women of loose or low character.  Today, while the dictionary still includes “prostitute” or “slovenly woman” as definitions for the word, it is almost always used in its connotative sense — to mean a promiscuous woman.

While there have been some attempts to reclaim the word by feminists and other progressive groups, it was not until a Toronto policeman advised women to not dress like sluts to avoid becoming victims of rape that the word grabbed significant media attention.

Protests called “Slutwalks” have appeared all over the United States, as well as Canada, the UK, and Australia in response to the policeman’s “slut-shaming” advice.

While the main message of these protests is to remind those who think like that Toronto policeman that rape is never the victim’s fault, that message is accompanied by a movement to take back the word “slut” and make it a positive, self-affirming term of unashamed sexuality.

With the signs reading, “Don’t tell women what to wear; Tell men not to rape,” and “A dress is not a yes,” women also held signs proudly proclaiming their status as sluts and refusing to accept that a slut is a bad thing to be.

Reclaiming the word is also a strike at the double standard of sexuality, in which a man is lauded for his sexual conquests and called a “stud,” but a woman is condemned and shamed for the same behavior.

Still, like other insults that have been reclaimed by the communities they originally put down (“queer” and “bitch,” for example), the word in its reclaimed, positive sense can only be used by those within that community.  If an “outsider” were to use it, even with good intentions, it could still be perceived as insulting.

What do you think about this issue?  Could “slut” become a sex-positive term used with pride, or is it too firmly rooted in its derogatory past?  Is it even a worthy cause to try to reclaim it?

Studylist of the Week: Animal Mysteries

Did you know that sharks have cells in their brains that can detect electrical fields?

I sure didn’t.

There’s so much we don’t know about the other inhabitants of our world, and the more we learn, the more we realize we have so much left to learn.  The Animal Mysteries studylist details some of the more unexplainable phenomena of the animal kingdom.

Earth is home to innumerable species of animals, many of them more mysterious and bizarre than the most imaginative science fiction aliens ever created.  And just when we start to think we’ve got them figured out, we discover something entirely unexpected.

 

Mass fish and bird deaths last winter proved difficult for scientists and other experts to understand.

Even though there was no evidence that the events were linked, the eerie coincidence led many to worry that this was a sign of worse to come.

 

A newly discovered microbe is changing the way we think about life.

Instead of phosphorus, which until now was considered essential to life, these tiny creatures can feed on a highly poisonous metallic element, arsenic.

 

Unlike wolves, coyotes can coexist comparatively peacefully with humans, moving about mostly at night and remaining wary of people.

They continually avoid people through resourcefulness, making them easy to live around but difficult for researchers to study.

 

The largest fish species in the world, the Whale Shark, is so quiet and unlikely to cause trouble that people can play with them or even hitch a ride on a fin.

Despite their huge size, they have proven difficult to study, so researchers don’t even know how many of them may be in the oceans.

 

One of the best things about scientific inquiry is the knowledge that there is always more out there to discover.  And when it comes to animals, I suspect we’ll continue to be amazed and intrigued by our fellow Earthlings for a long time to come.

Do you have any stories of animal mysteries to share?  Do you know of any newly discovered animals or animal abilities that have left scientists stumped?  Let us know in the comments!

Language Matters: LOLing at the OED

Language is undoubtedly a living, evolving thing.  And this is good, because otherwise we’d be stuck with a language from the Middle Ages to describe 21st century ideas.  But sometimes language can change in unexpected and potentially undesirable ways.

‘LOL’ added to the OED (BBC, 8 April 2011)

Raise your hand if you’ve used “LOL,” either online or in real life.

Wow!  That’s a lot of you.

I expected as much.

Still, some language purists have raised eyebrows at the recent decision to include “LOL” and “OMG” in the definitive book of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

The terms, as you might know, mean “laughing out loud” and “oh my god,” respectively.

Their ubiquity and the fact that they usually don’t need defining are what made them qualified to join the official ranks of our language.

Most people know them, many use them or have used them at some point, and even the most ardent “lol-haters” recognize their position in the language as a way of expressing amusement or a tongue-in-cheek appreciation of a joke in text or an online environment.

However, the inclusion of these terms in the official English language has led some to question whether the widespread use of such slang terms is harmful, especially for young people who are still developing their communication abilities.

Not so, say others.  In fact, it may actually be helpful.  Kids who use slang are engaging in code-switching, a linguistic task that involves using elements of two languages at the same time — something that bilingual people do.

This is not the first time that the language of the Internet has been given official sanction by the OED — the term “google” used as a verb was added in 2006.

What do you think about this issue?  Should “LOL” and “OMG” be counted as “real” words in English?  What about other Internet slang, like “BRB” or “ROFL”?  Why or why not?

Studylist of the Week: Weather Words

Sometimes, with all of our cars and buildings and roads and hospitals and zoos and nice safe houses, we forget who’s really in charge around here.

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Mother Earth.

But with raging storms, earthquakes, floods, and other huge acts of nature, She has her ways of reminding us.

The Vocablets in the Weather Words studylist showcase some of Mother Nature’s awesome might while also making vocab words memorable!

 

The Amazon, located in South America, is the largest rainforest in the world and one of the wettest places on Earth.

However, the shortage of rainfall that the region has experienced since the start of the 21st century has scientists worried about its future.

 

St. Elmo’s fire is not just an iconic 80′s movie — it’s also a weather phenomenon that creates a bright blue or violet glow under the right conditions.

In atmospheric electric fields (like during a thunderstorm), air molecules separate into ions, creating luminous plasma.

 

 

The one who shaped the mountaintop trees of South Africa with artistry and precision into their gracefully curved forms is a notoriously slow creator.

Wind has the reputation of a great destroyer, but given enough time, it can also be a sculptor of great beauty.

 

 

Venezuela had an exceptionally wet rainy season in 2010, which scientists attributed to a climactic phenomenon called La Nina.

The huge quantities of fast falling rain caused floods that swept through towns and destroyed thousands of homes, killing dozens of people.

 

The efforts of human beings to control or even simply to understand our world can seem paltry and small when faced with the truly formidable power of Earth.  So much that we are able to create can be taken out in an instant by an angry planet.

It is a humbling thought.

Do you have any stories of amazing weather phenomena to share?  Has any huge natural event happened where you live?  Tell us about it in the comments!

Language Matters: Words for Thought

The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

We think in words.

We tell ourselves what we want to hear, we talk ourselves out of (or into) things, we listen to that little voice in our heads that tells us what to do, we talk through an idea (or we think out loud), and we sometimes escape to hear ourselves think.

How many times have you grasped at an idea, knowing that you knew what you wanted to express but you couldn’t quite express it, so you grappled with your thoughts and muttered some related words to yourself until you finally hit upon that right word with a “Eureka!” moment and felt immense relief at having found the word that matched your meaning?

But what if you didn’t know that word?

How would you express that meaning?  More importantly, would you even be able to conceive of that concept if you had no word to associate it with?

Studies have shown that vocabulary size in children is associated with the ability to grasp new concepts and understand new information.  Kids with more word knowledge have an easier time thinking about unfamiliar subjects because they have more words to think with.

Words are like tools.  If all you have are nails, planks, and a hammer, you could build a rough shelter.  But if you want a big, elaborate house, you’re going to need more specialized tools.  Similarly, basic words can communicate basic concepts, but if you want to express full, complicated ideas, you’re going to need more sophisticated words.

What do you think?  Let us know in the comments!

Language Matters: London gangstas say f**k the 5-0

Why bother with all this vocabulary stuff?  How is it relevant in the ‘real world’?  You might be surprised by how much the words you use affect the meaning of what you say.

The language behind the England riots (BBC, 12 August 2011)

Feds.

Po po.

The 5-0.

These are just a few new words in the UK’s lexicon — all of them slang for the police — that traveled across the ocean from the United States with their hip hop and rap origins.

These are the "po po" according to rioters, even though they're not the same police that LA rappers were talking about when they invented the term.

These words, along with others of non-US origin (such as “yard” for home or “end” for part of a city), have drawn increased attention from the media because of the London riots.

While the words have changed meaning somewhat from their origins — the word “feds” obviously does not refer to the FBI when used in the UK — they carry a connotation that connects their users to a subculture that is known to hold contempt for police.

And they're not afraid to tell you how they feel.

In a similar way, when the media referred to “the community,” it was generally accepted that the term meant everyone who was not involved in the looting and riots.

Even the choice between the word “rioter,” which implies a political motivation, or “looter,” which implies simple theft, holds great weight in this situation.

Clearly, looters are the more reviled group.

These examples demonstrate the power of words and their importance in expressing meaning, especially when dealing with emotionally and politically controversial events around the world.

What do you think?  Let us know in the comments!

Language Matters: How many words do you really need?

Why bother with all this vocabulary stuff?  How is it relevant in the Real World?  You might be surprised by how much the words you use affect the meaning of what you say.

English in 100 Words (BBC News, 29 March 2011)

An Italian soccer coach in England claimed that he could coach his players using only 100 words of English.  While this is clearly at least something of an exaggeration, it begs the question: how many words of a language do you need to know in order to communicate effectively?

Let's see, "run," "faster," "shoot," "ball," "goal..." yeah, that's enough.

Experts in this BBC article suggest that 1,500-2,000 words would make an “intermediate” level of language knowledge, but the average person’s vocabulary in their native tongue contains about 20,000 active words and 40,000 passive ones.

The point to remember might be that while a limited vocabulary may allow you to be understood, it takes far more to express yourself with richness and complexity.  After all, why call something “very good” or even “excellent” when you could call it “majestic“, “exquisite,” or “unparalleled“?

What do you think?  Let us know in the comments!