Friday, October 30, 2009

Etymological Fables

Today I came across a word history of sincere that seems impossible. According to the story, Latin potters would sometimes use wax to conceal cracks in their products. Vendors in the marketplace, knowing that the buyers were wary of this ruse, would praise their wares as sin cera--without wax.

(Are there any valid etymologies that end with ". . . so people used to say ________"?)

The author of this word history intended to illustrate that sincerity requires allowing the cracks to show. A good point to make, especially in a church context, where there is great pressure to conceal our weaknesses. Somehow this etymological fable is less offensive to my sensibilities because the point isn't really the etymology. One can think of it as an elaborate pun, a just-so story, rather than a statement about the origin of sincere.

But what is the true etymon of sincere? Merriam-Webster's tentatively traces it to "sem- one + -cerus (akin to Latin crescere to grow)." The New Century Dictionary follows a similar line, associating the initial syllable with the sim- in Latin simplex. The OED concurs and explicitly puts down those Latin pottery merchants: "There is no probability in the old explanation from sine cera ‘without wax’."

It's disappointing that only Merriam-Webster's ventures a guess at the second half of the word. If the "without wax" story is well-known enough for the OED to knock it down, there must be some vigorous discussion somewhere of what that second element is. I submit the question to Professor Liberman and his legendary database.

And while he's pondering wax, perhaps he'd care to comment on the relationship between the English noun wax and the verb wax. According to the OED, "it seems not impossible" that the two share a common etymon (wax being "that which grows (in the honeycomb)"), but "the view now most in favour refers the word to the Indogermanic root *weg- to weave." Merriam-Webster's etymology of sincere seems to imply that the Latin words for wax (the noun) and grow share a common origin.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Books Half Read

I just re-read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Highly recommended. Don't let your eyes glaze over during the dialogs and arguments: them's the best parts. Now I want to read more about several important figures in the book: Roger Bacon, William of Ockham, Aristotle, Dante. But first, I have to finish the following (half-read) books:

Lush Life by Richard Price
Public Enemies by Bryan Burroughs
The Lighthouse by P. D. James
The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins

Then there are the two books Jon loaned to me:

And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer
Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI

That last one was lent well over a year ago, and I don't think I'm halfway through it yet. I'm such a loser. What would Teddy Roosevelt think?

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Sad State of Literary Affairs

A coworker recently spent a few days biking in Iowa and Minnesota. He passed through the town of Luverne, MN, where I was born. There's not much in Luverne to awe the world-weary traveler, so I didn't know if it would leave an impression on him.

Unfortunately, it did.

He had stopped in Luverne hoping to pick up a book. He told me that he always travels with a paperback, but had forgotten one on this trip. He claims to have gone to ten different places trying to buy a book, but couldn't get one anywhere. People reportedly returned his request with puzzled stares: "You mean, like a storybook?"

Now, some exaggeration is surely involved here: I doubt whether Luverne has ten businesses that would seem even remotely likely to carry novels. Nonetheless, I'm embarrassed that the town of my birth could not provide for my friend's literary needs. This has shamed not only Luverne, but all of southwest Minnesota--even the great state of Minnesota itself.

Loopy's, I'm ashamed of you. Pamida, I used to hold you in such esteem.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Our Ford

Elliot at All Is Grist (named after the first work by Chesterton that I read!) talks about defining evangelicalism, a topic touched upon in this blog. I would agree that evangelicalism is not quite the right word to describe Henry Ford's adventures in Brazil. In Chesterton's taxonomy, Ford might qualify as a Puritan because of his anti-alcohol stance, but an Episcopalian who believes in reincarnation (per Wikipedia) scarcely qualifies as an evangelical.

I know you're not supposed to cite Wikipedia, yeah yeah, blah blah blah, but some articles make for great reading. I had no idea that Europeans (particularly Germans) had such a fixation with him. It makes the premise of Brave New World more understandable.

Monday, October 05, 2009

What's the opposite of uber?

I'm wearing my mustaches long these days, but I am not a fan of Nietzsche. I am in his debt today, however, for a new line of self-interrogation. (That is what philosophers are good for, right?) I read this description of Nietzsche's critique of Christian morality (from Joseph Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth):

"Nietzsche sees the vision of the Sermon on the Mount as a religion of resentment, as the envy of the cowardly and incompetent, who are unequal to life's demands and try to avenge themselves by blessing their failure and cursing the strong, the successful, and the happy."

I suddenly asked myself, "Am I a Christian because I'm weak?"

The argument could be made. I'm certainly much better off in a Christian-influenced environment than in a world of supermen. As a short, nearsighted man with rather slow reflexes and not much skill at making money, I wouldn't fare so well among the strong and successful, especially if they were cut loose from law and conscience.

I remember a moment in elementary school when I informed a persecutor that, in the way he was treating me, he "wasn't being very Christian." But he was a superman--the tallest kid in fifth grade--and he responded simply, "I'm not a Christian." Didn't know what to say to that.

So I am capable of using Christian morality in the service of power, attempting to control others who are stronger than me. Even if it doesn't work very often (I actually can only think of times when it failed), I should pay attention to this capability. When are my appeals to God's favor for the weak mere power plays for my own advantage? Thank you, Nietzsche, for this.

At the same time, I wholeheartedly embrace Christian morality and God's favor for the weak. What's right is right, even if my motives for supporting it will never be purely right.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

My current leather possessions are limited to a wallet and some belts

"Logos Bible Software is celebrating the launch of their new online Bible by giving away 72 ultra-premium print Bibles at a rate of 12 per month for six months. The Bible giveaway is being held at and you can get up to five different entries each month! After you enter, be sure to check out Logos and see how it can revolutionize your Bible study."

Well, it's a new month, and that means it's time to enter again in Logos Bible Software's luxury Bible giveaway. I've entered every month so far, but I haven't wanted to enter by writing a blog post; I figured I would look pretty shallow writing about a contest just to be entered into the contest. Thankfully, because of Lingamish's recent rant about the giveaway, I have a pretext to write a post.

Lingamish hasn't shamed me into not trying to win a luxury Bible, but he has reminded me anew that English-language Bible resources are wasted on speakers of the English language. There is a great hunger abroad for good tools for interpreting the Bible, but many obstacles stand in the way. A lack of workers, copyright issues, poverty, lack of technology. Meanwhile, Bible publishers, one of which is my esteemed employer (I speak entirely in earnest), continue to crank out new repackages of the English Bible. People keep buying them, even though (according to this website, which was the first hit on Google), 92% of American homes have a Bible--and among those 92%, the average number of Bibles is three.*

By contrast, 200 million people don't have the Bible in their own language.

Lingamish has 6 things you can do about this. I'm not saying you shouldn't try to win one of Logos's Bibles, but maybe you can do one of these, too. I'll add a seventh option:

7. Give to one of Wycliffe Bible Translators' current projects.

*I have over twenty Bibles on my shelves (not counting electronic versions), but what can I say? I would really enjoy getting one of the leather-bound copies Logos is giving away. I'm hoping for the TNIV (currently a lacuna in my library).