Thursday, November 03, 2005

Language-Police Complaint 1

I don't claim to be the world's expert on grammar, but I take it very seriously -- and one of my great delights is to discover some particularly well-phrased idea. On the other hand, I am a critical sort (a great surprise to my friends, no doubt). So given the state of language in the good old USA, I am often fuming, out-loud correcting usage by newscasters, or simply rolling my eyes at some inanity.

Now come Border's and Barnes & Noble, the book companies, which invite me to "pre-order" some books and CDs that will be released over the next few weeks. And I ask you: What on earth is a pre-order? If I enter the required data and click on "send", have I not placed an order -- not a pre-order? Is not "pre-ordering" the stuff I do before I order -- e.g., opening the e-mail announcement, musing on whether I can live without the newest teenybopper CD, checking bank balances, and the like?

Let me display my true old-curmudgeonly side: Are we doomed to the complete breakdown of language, all under the specious rationale that "if you know what I mean, it doesn't matter how I say or spell it"? My stars and garters! Language is the measure of a culture. (Rome began to crumble when it forgot Greek.)

As Christians, we have a special stake in this issue: We are, after all, people of the Word -- the word spoken, the word made visible in sacraments, and the Word made flesh. It is incumbent on us to care for language with the same zeal some of us display toward the "environment" (another loosey-goosey term) or "poverty" or abortion issues.

And we Lutherans (others may look at this without guilt) should be especially mindful of how we use language. We are the tradition that, for better or worse, has built a theological edifice on the "proper distinction between law and gospel." "Law" and "Gospel" are ways of talking (and enacting words -- and precision in grammar is key.

Fn: Ranting on this topic seemed a better idea than commenting on the general quality of driving in Minnesota (which is of very real concern this morning!).


HereISit said...

Am I pre-saved? Was I pre-saved before I was baptized?

Daniel S. said...

I brought this blog entry up to some friends at a party this weekend and we came up with the term "Anticipatorily order" to cover the term pre-order.

Either way, most of these U of C grad students I was with chalked it up as a sign of how language "grows" and changes. That's been the case for all of human history.

I think you (and I) just like rules to follow and then get cranky when they aren't followed (like liturgy and music).


Dwight P. said...

Well, U of C -- what do you expect? They're so nervous that true conservatism -- nay, radical conservatism -- will show, that they slough off concerns about things that matter. (Have you read a U of C dissertation lately? Mercy. Actually, to be honest the last place to look for good writing is between the covers of a dissertation, so maybe I'm unfair to the U of C.)

But I fully acknowledge that language changes. I don't ask that we read the Psalm that says "I arise and prevent the sun ..." (meaning get there before the sun does -- not meaning stop the sun). But legitimate change makes sense. "Pre-order" doesn't.

Doctors don't "pre-operate" -- even if they're forced to go in earlier than they intended -- but I may be "pre-operative."

On a lighter note: I "pre-ordered" The Oxford History of Christian Liturgy, ed. by Wainwright and a colleague at Duke whose name escapes me. I am happy to report that the book shows no signs yet of prematurity or of needing assistance. It's very heavy -- in all senses of the term -- and I think I'll be happy to have received it just after it was published. I bought it at a "pre-publication price" -- a fact and a phrase with which I take no umbrage!