Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Tempest in a Teapot: Easter Worshippers

Seems to me that "Easter worshippers" is shorthand for "people worshipping on Easter Sunday."

In the US, at least, churches are often full to the brim on Easter Sunday with what we might call "cultural Christians" -- folks who do not ordinarily grace the inside of any church and are not necessarily Christians in any theologically meaningful sense on a day-to-day basis (prayer life, devotion to Christ's teachings, etc.).  So from a purely technical point of view, "Easter worshippers" could potentially be more accurate than "Christians" to describe the victims.

In any event the phrase, though inelegant and easily mockable, is clear enough.  It seems odd to complain that these tweets failed to use the word "Christians," when the word "Easter" makes clear that the victims were not culturally or theologically Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or the like.  Does the word "Christian" have some totemic power that it must be invoked in a tweet expressing sympathy for the victims?

Moreover, the phrase "Easter worshippers" arguably gets to the core of the matter -- these attacks were not just random attacks on Christians on some random Sunday.  They were targeting Christians on the highest of high holy days, the day when it was fully revealed that Jesus was not just another nice guy who finished last, but instead was God himself incarnate, sacrificed and resurrected for us.  And they were targeting Christian churches on a day when anyone with any cultural or theological affinity to Christianity whatsoever would likely be in a church. (Presumably in order to maximize the deaths/injuries.)

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

"We were worsted"

I associate "worsted" with wool, but Tolkien uses the verb form of worst twice in LotR, in places where I'd have been inclined to say bested or defeated:

  • Merry (post-barrow): "The men of Carn Dûm came on us at night, and we were worsted.  Ah! the spear in my heart!"
  • Gimli: "With its own weapons was it worsted!"

According to the OED, worst, v. is about two centuries older than best, v., and slightly rarer nowadays.  But they are essentially synonyms; just as flammable and inflammable are synonyms.

So for worst, v., the second meaning is the one in current use:
2. transitive. Cf. best, v. 
a. To get the better of (an adversary) in a fight or battle; to defeat, overcome.

b. To defeat in argument, to outdo or prove better than (a person). Also: to overcome or foil (an undertaking). Frequently in passive.
But for best, v., there is only one meaning:
transitive. To get the better of, to get an advantage over; to outwit. Also: to cheat, defraud; cf. bester n.
I think bested may be more popular with modern Americans, because it focuses on the victor: who was best?  Whereas worsted focuses on the loser: who came out worst?

So compare "With its own weapons was it bested!"  vs "With its own weapons was it worsted" -- Tolkien's version has better alliteration, of course, but it also emphasizes the irony of this particular defeat.

(Curiously enough, as Corey Olsen has noted, cleave and splice are each their own antonym; also sanction, for that matter.)

Monday, April 15, 2019

First-World Problems

Carolyn Hax, responding to a letter-writer’s self-negating comment (“I know there is so much worse stuff going on in the world right now”):
This can be a useful thought exercise for dealing with disappointment, say, but for grief, especially on so many fronts? There’s no “first-world loss,” there’s just loss — unless your Mercedes-Benz has died.
Washington Post online, April 14 at 11:59 PM.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Gleaming Cohorts

This morning, I suddenly thought of the opening lines of Byron's "The Destruction of Sennacherib," as mediated by James Thurber.  They gallop memorably along in anapestic tetrameter:
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
Thurber reports the complaint of some self-help guru that people just weren't reading these lines properly: "when a suspicious-minded investigator tested them, quite a number turned out to suppose that the Assyrian's cohorts were an article of wearing apparel" (75).

Thurber's rejoinder is a delightful defense of this misreading:
What the second line means is simply that the cohorts' articles of wearing apparel were gleaming in purple and gold, so nothing much is distorted except the number of people who came down like the wolf on the fold.  The readers who got it wrong had, it seems to me, as deep a poetic feeling [...] as those who knew that a cohort was originally one of the ten divisions of a Roman legion and had, to begin with, three hundred soldiers, later five hundred to six hundred.  Furthermore, those who got it wrong had a fine flaring image of one Assyrian coming down valiantly all alone, instead of with a couple of thousand soldiers to help him, the big coward. (75-76, bold emphasis added)
That bit in bold is a contender for Best Literary Criticism Ever, as far as I'm concerned.

But it turns out Terry Pratchett has also played with a similar misreading of "cohorts" in Byron's poem.  For example, in ch. 6 of Going Postal:
A voice behind [Moist] said: ‘The Postman came down like a wolf on the fold / His cohorts all gleaming in azure and gold... ’ 
[...] He turned to Miss Dearheart. 
‘When I was a kid I always thought that a cohort was a piece of armour, Miss Dearheart,’ he said, giving her a smile. ‘I used to imagine the troops sitting up all night, polishing them.’
And in Feet of Clay, there's a reference to "Stronginthearm's Armour Polish for Gleaming Cohorts."

A brief google search confirms that Wodehouse riffs on these lines as well at various times in multiple books, but it doesn't look like his characters necessarily mistake the meaning of "cohorts."  For example, in Bertie Wooster Sees It Through, Bertie at one point complains that Stilton "was once more in the position of an Assyrian fully licensed to come down like a wolf on the fold with his cohorts all gleaming with purple and gold."  (Later, he reflects that Stilton's demeanor "was that of an Assyrian who, having come down like a wolf on the fold, had found in residence not lambs, but wildcats, than which, of course, nothing makes an Assyrian feel sillier.")

(Another Wodehousian twist: "With the nippiness of a lamb in the fold on observing the approaching Assyrians...." - The Code of the Woosters.)


I suspect the substitution of "a wolf" for "the wolf" is probably quite common.  But  "a wolf" suggests a mere everyday simile (the Assyrian approaches just like any wolf would), whereas "the wolf" suggests more of an iconic encounter, maybe even the Platonic ideal of wolf-sheep encounters, the Wolf all sheep fear.

Thurber, James. “Miscellaneous Mentation.” Let Your Mind Alone! And Other More or Less Inspirational Pieces, 1st Perennial Library ed., Harper & Row, Publishers, 1976, pp. 72–79.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Laconic/Understated Repartee in Macbeth

Here's something that apparently caught my attention in my last read-through of Macbeth back in March 2017.  Yet another reminder that our modern and post-modern authors did not invent irony/deliberate understatement/litotes/snappy comebacks.

From Act 2, Scene 3:


The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i' the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatch'd to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour'd the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake.

MACBETH:  'Twas a rough night.

From Act 4, Scene 1:

Second Apparition: Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!

MACBETH: Had I three ears, I'ld hear thee.

From Act 4, Scene 2:

LADY MACDUFF:  Yes, he is dead; how wilt thou do for a father?

Son:  Nay, how will you do for a husband?

LADY MACDUFF:  Why, I can buy me twenty at any market.

Son:  Then you'll buy 'em to sell again.