Wednesday, November 18, 2009

on bizarre terminology

Gabriel referred to somebody else's argument about translating the usual references to the Virgin Mary in Orthodox liturgy. For those unfamiliar, the Greek title most often used to refer to her is "Theotokos" (Θεοτόκος), which roughly glosses as "She who gave birth to the one who is God", if you'll forgive my glossing it as though it were Sanskrit. Most other languages translate this title. Slavonic says "Bogoroditsa", for instance (Богородица). A lot of English Orthodox texts are translated from the Slavonic, so we have the absurd situation of translating from the Slavonic, which was translated from the Greek, not into the target language, but back into Greek. I find it slightly more absurd than using antiquated second person pronouns. Gabriel then goes on to say that he never uses the term when talking with non-Orthodox and rarely even when talking with Orthodox (unless explicitly discussing the third ecumenical council). I find this wise and tactful, because most people have a hard enough time understanding the nonsense we are talking about without our assuming that they know all these crazy big words we're using.

Which brings us to the topic of our conversation. Most people have no idea what the hell other people are talking about, religiously, if they are not a part of your bizarre little religious subculture. This has become more apparent over the last year, since my wife, for some odd reason, has a lot of Protestant friends, and they use common everyday words as though they are imbued with some special meaning that I cannot pretend to decipher and they have all these nonsensical debates which mean literally nothing to me. And they all pretend like they should mean something to me just because the words they are using are all English (imagine if they weren't and they were using hideously outdated German or French).

Of course, this extends beyond religious spheres. Any little coterie is bound to have manners of speaking that become pregnant with meaning, but when outsiders are introduced to them, their reaction is, "You say that as if it should mean something to me, but it doesn't." And, even more insidiously, conformance to these manners of speaking by those inducted can become a substitute for actual understanding. Leaning on the obscure words of others rather than, you know, realizing what you're saying. This isn't too bad if you're just working it out for yourself, but if you're trying to have any influence on other people, I recommend figuring out what you mean before you say it and trying to translate it into something somebody else can understand. This usually means using English words.

As a matter of policy, I pretend not to understand people who don't unless it's clear we know what we're doing. That's part of the motivation behind my post about words that cause me to tune out: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. Or at least we may not agree about it.