Impossible to Define This Word?

Let me help with that.

“Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman?’” the senator asked the female judge, a candidate for justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, on March 22, 2022.

“Can I provide a definition? No,” the candidate responded. “I can’t.”

“You can’t?” the senator asked.

“Not in this context, I’m not a biologist,” the judge replied.[1]

I realize that Supreme Court candidates are grilled mercilessly prior to confirmation, so I sympathize with the judge, who was thrown for a loop by a difficult question completely outside her field of expertise. I mean, let’s be real here. For example . . .

  • Would you ask me for directions to my house? Good luck!—I’m no cartographer.
  • Should I be expected to tell you if it’s sunny or raining outside? Excuse me, do you think I’m a meteorologist?
  • How does one flush a toilet? C’mon, man, I’m not a plumber, for pity’s sake!

I’m no biologist either, but I know a thing or two about the English language. And being a married man,[2] I know enough about women to assure you that I ain’t one. But I digress.

Allow me to help the good judge by explaining for her what a woman is. I’ll restrict my comments to the realms of lexicography and etymology.[3]

Okay, here we go, your honor! Are you ready? I’ll type slowly, because this can be pretty hard:

 A woman is “AN ADULT FEMALE PERSON.”[4]

Let’s break it down further: An (indefinite article) adult (as opposed to a child or youth) female (as opposed to a male) person (as opposed to an animal, plant, fish, etc.).

That’s the lexicographical answer. Are you still with me, your honor? Good! I know you’re in uncharted territory now, so when you catch your breath, we’ll look at etymology. Fasten your seatbelt!

Woman has been a part of the English language since  approximately 1250 AD. It can be traced back several centuries before that. It probably developed out of wumman or womman (before 1200 AD), and before that from the Old English wimman (c. 1000), which probably evolved from wīfman (before c. 766), a compound of wīf (woman) and man (human being).[5] (You might notice, incidentally, that the word wife originated from wīf—woman). Not exactly rocket science—I mean, biology—now, is it?

I do sincerely hope this little tutorial helps your honor in addressing matters of jurisprudence, biology, or simple word definitions going forward. We don’t want you to be caught off guard again. You’re welcome!


[1] Source: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/ketanji-brown-jackson-bidens-supreme-court-pick-refuses-to-define-the-word-woman

[2] I’m married to a woman, by the way, which, in the history of the world until a few years ago no one would have thought to question.

[3] That is, dictionaries (lexicography) and word origins (etymology).

[4] Merriam-Webster. 2020. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition. Frederick C. Mish, ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc.

[5] Barnhardt, Robert, ed. 1995. The Barnhardt Concise Dictionary of Etymology. New York: HarperCollins (p. 847). Partridge, Eric. 1983. Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Greenwich House, (p. 776).

 

Martin Luther King Jr. Day Reflections

The Ideal of a Colorblind Society

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had the right idea about race relations, eloquently expounded during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. His “dream” for his children was that one day in America they would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I believe we could call that world a colorblind society. One of the definitions of colorblind, according to Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, is “not influenced by differences of race … free from racial prejudice.” The New Oxford Dictionary similarly defines it as “not influenced by racial prejudice: a color-blind society.” That seems to be the sort of society that MLK lived – and died – for. It is a world in which “all men are created equal,” the ideal of the Founding Fathers.

As a nation, we made great strides toward realizing that dream and that ideal, until the unfortunate rise of cultural Marxism, Critical Race Theory, BLM, and the so-called antiracist doctrines of those who would demonize a certain segment of our society. Today it is no longer good, or even okay, to be colorblind, to be not racist. Now, according to the twisted linguistic and ideological gymnastics of the cultural Marxist elites who shape the prevailing progressive narrative in America, to be colorblind is to be actually racist! Astoundingly, to be not racist, according to this convoluted logic, is to be, in fact, a white supremacist, of all things. Now one must be antiracist.

The net effect of these progressive efforts has been to divide us, rather than unify us, based solely on the color of our skin. The current mantra of the so-called woke is that America is still incurably, systemically racist, as though the hard work and sacrifices of Dr. King and his fellow laborers in the Civil Rights Movement were all in vain, that they amounted to nothing. I seriously doubt Dr. King would agree with that assessment. To preach such a grim, false message dishonors his memory.

I am truly thankful for Dr. King’s tremendous insight, courage, and dedication, all tragically cut way too short by an assassin’s bullet in 1968.

Whatever Happened to English?

Now available, in time for the holidays!

My newest book, five-plus years in coming, based on this blog, is now a reality. It’s available on Amazon in paperback (e-book to come).

Here are some details:

Clicking on the image will take you to Amazon.

Speakers and writers of American English don’t have to know how to diagram sentences or write grammatically perfect sentences at all times, but we should aim for a solid grasp of the basics of good usage, syntax, and punctuation—what teachers and copyeditors call the “mechanics” of English, or simply “Standard Written English.” Our goal should be to communicate in writing more clearly, concisely, coherently, and correctly.

Liberally lacing Whatever Happened to English? with practical grammar, usage, and punctuation tips and examples, often with a humorous edge, the author includes nearly one hundred essays of varying lengths—from a single paragraph to several pages. Approximately half of these essays originally appeared in The Dean’s English blog. The other half are brand new. The book is organized into these chapters:

  • Whatever Happened to English?
  • Usage Uncertainties
  • Punctuation Perplexities
  • A Grammar Miscellany
  • Fun with Words
  • A Dean’s English Potpourri
  • English at the Holidays

Whatever Happened to English? is for writers as young as middle school and as old as Methuselah.

I hope you’ll check it out!

What’s So “Good” About Good Friday?

My own understanding of this holy day.

I suspect that many people—including the religious and nonreligious among us—are unclear as to why today is called “Good Friday.” Many folks at least vaguely realize it has some connection to Easter, that is has a “religious” meaning. But what makes it “good”? In some minds, it may be similar to Black Friday at Thanksgiving—a time to hit the stores (if they haven’t already done so) and pick up all the last-minute goodies for Easter festivities: food, candy, plastic eggs, new outfits, and so forth. For some (before COVID-19 and forced home-stays) it was “good” because they got the afternoon off from work with pay, or the day off from school. But none of these things has anything to do with its true meaning.

If you google it, you can find a number of interesting explanations about the etymology of Good Friday. Here is the interpretation that I prefer: The church—meaning the collective body of people in the world who profess to believe in and follow Jesus Christ—has always understood that the greatest possible gift God bestowed upon humanity occurred on the day Christ was crucified on a cross nearly 2,000 years ago, the Friday of Passover week in c. 30 A.D.[1] This event in history, which occurred just outside of Jerusalem, is the sine qua non[2] of the gospel message.

Here is that gospel message in a nutshell, as most Christians understand it: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, KJV). The death of Jesus Christ on that day in 30 A.D. effected the forgiveness of and liberation from the enslavement of sin of every person who believes and places their trust in him, repents of (turns away from) sin, and walks by faith in him. And for nearly 2,000 years, that has resulted in the greatest possible “good” for the greatest number of people in the history of the world. It brought hope to the world, the promise of eternal life with God in heaven, and true spiritual freedom.

Freedom

During these fearful and uncertain days, we need this Good Friday message of forgiveness, and the hope we have through Christ’s resurrection three days later on  Easter Sunday, more than ever.

Happy Resurrection Day (Easter) to you and yours! I hope you can attend a church service online this Sunday where you can learn more about and celebrate the true meaning of Easter. Most evangelical churches will be live-streaming services.

May God bless us every one.


[1] Some Bible teachers suggest Christ was crucified on Thursday, an opinion not shared by the majority of Christian scholars.

[2] Sine qua non – literally, without which not. It’s something absolutely essential or indispensable – as the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is indispensable to the gospel message, and, in turn, to the Christian faith.

“Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve

What do the famous lyrics mean?

Auld Lang Syne
“We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

As we ring down the curtain on yet another year, many of us will hear, play, or sing what is sometimes dubbed “the most famous song that nobody knows.” With lyrics traditionally butchered by millions at midnight on New Year’s Eve—”Auld Lang Syne” was the title and key phrase of a Scots poem written by Robert Burns in 1788. The phrase itself had been around for 200 years before Burns’s poem popularized it.

“Auld lang syne” (“syne” can be pronounced either “zine” or “sine”)  translates literally into English as “old long since” and means essentially “days gone by” or “long, long ago.” It’s historically a drinking song—the phrase “we’ll take a cup of kindness” isn’t referring to warm milk—but feel free to enjoy it without alcohol. It suggests reminiscing about good times with old friends and loved ones that we promise never to forget. “Should old acquaintance be forgot?” Never! is the implied answer. The song has five verses, but no one sings—or shall I say attempts to sing—anything but the first verse and the chorus, which follow: Continue reading ““Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve”

Five Thanksgiving Words

Origins of common words.

As millions of Americans will be counting their blessings and gathering with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving Day this week, I thought it would be fun to investigate the origins of several words commonly associated with the holiday. Please enjoy this post first published on Thanksgiving Day two years ago.

1. Thank

Thank comes from the Old English word thanc, which is derived from the prehistoric Germanic thangk, with a root idea of thoughtfulness. The English word think comes from the samehappy-thanksgiving root. It’s easy to see how our word for expressing gratitude originated from the concept of thinking or giving thoughtful consideration. A twelfth-century translation of Matthew 15:19 reads, “From the heart come evil thanks.” By the early sixteenth century the same verse was rendered, “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts” (KJV). To give thanks is to think about and express one’s gratitude for something. And what better way to say “thank you” than by enjoying a big feast. Continue reading “Five Thanksgiving Words”

Of Cranks, Bugs, and Fans

Are you one?

When the United States began to recover from the terrible trauma of the Civil War in the 1860s, ’70s, and ’80s, the game of baseball provided a healing tonic for many Americans. Baseball (or base ball, as it was typically written back then) had been around in one form or another for several decades prior to the Civil War, but that national tragedy provided fertile soil for the sport to grow exponentially in popularity. Soldiers from both Northern and Southern armies played baseball, and they took it home with them when their military service ended. A mere four years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the first professional baseball team had formed in Cincinnati, and two years later, in 1871, the first professional baseball league had been (loosely) organized.

Oldtime base ball game

Cranks

As baseball’s popularity skyrocketed, newspapers featured detailed accounts of games, box scores reduced each contest to a quick-and-easy statistical snapshot, and top ball players—or “ballists”—became the idols of boys everywhere (men, too, if they were honest). Enthusiastic devotees rose up from all walks of life, but guardians of polite society frowned upon them and referred to them as “cranks,” a decidedly pejorative term. Continue reading “Of Cranks, Bugs, and Fans”

Clipped Words We Use Every Day

How many of these do you know?

busI wrote an article last summer for this blog about “clipped” words—longer words that are commonly shortened—and how to spell them. It’s easy to see how many multi-syllable words came to be abbreviated, because that’s the nature of informal communications. It’s is how we talk, and the spellings of most clipped forms are straightforward. For example, we obviously get phone from telephone, photo from photograph, and bio from biography—all easy to understand and simple to spell. Continue reading “Clipped Words We Use Every Day”

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