A Use for Bibles in Disaster Zones


You know those folks who travel to disaster zones (Haiti, Oklahoma, etc.) and hand out not food, not medicine, but Bibles? Turns out they’re not useless after all–as long as the Bibles have leather covers.

You see, back in Renaissance Europe, Catholics and Protestants were doing the whole war thing all over the western half of the continent, especially France. The Huguenots, French Protestants, had an especially bad time of it, with Catholic armies besieging every Huguenot controlled city they could find, down to small towns and villages. One such village was under siege for so long they were reduced to eating leather. Being French, of course, they made it edible.

From a letter found in a 1969 collection called The Huguenot Wars: An Eyewitness Account (via The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part I comes the recipe: soak the leather (shoes or something, I guess) in brine for at least a day, changing the water often, braise until tender with roots and herbs, and sauté it in fat. The author of the account apparently describes it as “one of the most delicious things [I] have ever eaten.”

Another letter (or maybe the same one–I haven’t seen the original source), from a pastor called Jean de Lery, has a similar recipe for boiled drum skins: first soaked for 2 days, then scraped with a knife and boiled until tender enough for you to scratch with your fingers and see if they’re glutinous. Cut the result into small pieces, the whole affair is then seasoned with herbs and spices.

See? Bibles are useful, after all. They can feed the people, if they’re the nice fancy kind with leather covers.

But somehow I doubt people in disaster zones are receiving nice leather Bibles. Maybe some enterprising soul with come up some kind of lentil soup equivalent you can make out of the wood pulp from paper.

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“Pain from an old wound”

“Nostalgia” means “pain from an old wound,” so says common knowledge. The problem with common knowledge is that it is often wrong. Nostalgia has nothing to do with old wounds, and only a little to do with pain.

The other problem with common knowledge is that it is often almost right.

“Nostalgia” means “the affliction of homecoming.” Think “neuralgia,” the affliction of the brain. Despite its Greek appearance, “nostalgia” is actually a new-ish word, a translation of the German heimweh, because of course the Germans would have a word for this thing.

On the way back from vacation, I decide to stop by the old house where I grew up. It’ll be the first time I see it in sixteen years.

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Secular India

A man named Narendra Dabholkar was assassinated in India yesterday. I’d never heard of him. I’m even less tuned into to Indian rationalist networks than I am to American ones. Yet this bothered the hell out of me, more than normal.

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DNA Test Reveals White Girl Is White

Previously, I’d done some analysis on the results of the DNA test I’d completed recently. That can be found here: (Background | Results). My fiancée asked if I could do a write-up about her results too, so I did, and gave it a snarky title.

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Letting My Spit Do the Talking, part II

Previously on Hapax Legomenon

I ordered a test from 23andMe.com, spit in a tube and sent it back. Six weeks later, I have results in my browser. I had made some educated guesses about what I might find. We’ll see how I did.

As a male, I got to have both my Y-DNA and my mtDNA tested. Y-DNA traces my father’s line back through his father and so on. mtDNA does the same through my mother and her mother, etc. What you get is a line connecting you to the human male and female most recent common ancestors (MRCA). Certainly not a complete picture, but an illuminating one nonetheless.

I had predicted that my mtDNA would fall in haplogroup M, haplogroup R, or haplogroup U, but I couldn’t be more specific than that. I had predicted that my Y-DNA would fall in haplogroup R, probably subclade R1a1.

So here we go.

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Letting My Spit Do the Talking

My recorded family history doesn’t go back more than four or five generations. For thousands of years, Indians didn’t really keep records on genealogy unless you were a king. My family were priests, so most records were transmitted orally… until they weren’t. Names don’t really help because conventions were inconsistent and variable between regions. The result is that my family history lives in a data dark age once you go back past 1800 or so, in which all we have is a stray name or scrap of family legend. So when DNA testing became a thing, I determined to get one. Now I finally have.

I’ve wanted to get one of these for a long time, and off and on I’d done reading about population genetics in order to get familiar with the topic, and to make educated guesses about my ancestry at a time when I couldn’t afford the test. In this first part, I’ll tell you how I made those predictions and in the next, we’ll see how well they held up.

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Pet peeve—the YA Literary Love Triangle

Small rant ahead.

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The Language of Science: it’s OK to be prescriptivist

I’ve been spending a lot of time on Tumblr lately (I also post a lot of these blog posts on Tumblr, so yay!—built-in audience). To my surprise, I’ve discovered a not insignificant number of linguistically-oriented people on there. We talk about cool things, like etymology, difficulty people have learning languages, even conlangs. But by far the favorite topic of tumblinguists is prescriptivism.

In linguistics, prescription or prescriptivism is the practice of championing one variety or manner of speaking of a language against another. To put it mildly, we on Tumblr are not fans. Whenever some unwitting schmuck complains about someone’s nonstandard speech or grammar, someone’s on hand to remind them that it’s probably not wrong, just different. Sometimes these reminders are gentle, sometimes not. Of course, things sometimes get a little extreme, to the point of “correcting anyone’s speech ever is pedantic and racist and y u HATIN and RUINING ALL THE THINGS EVAR.” Though I largely agree with the takedowns of prescriptivists I’ve seen (and there are some great ones–and mine), it got me thinking about instances where authoritatively enforcing rules of language may be not just desirable but necessary.

The idea that prescriptivism is bad is pretty well drilled into you in linguistics courses. It has to be. The only way to properly do linguistics is to work with actual data about how people actually use language, rather than some abstract idea. However, semanticists, of which I am one (in training) may tend a little more toward prescription than other linguists. Obviously, descriptivism still is the way to go when discussing meaning because a word only means something because people agree that it does, but when trying to answer the deeper semantic question of what makes that word mean that thing, we tend to require some strictures be maintained. Thus, a semanticist might be more likely to get upset over “I herd you’re idea’s and there very good” than a morphologist or a syntactician might be over “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Because language is not used in isolation, words must necessarily mean certain things and those meanings have to be relatively static. Semantic shift happens, but it’s slow, because there is a best way to speak English, or any other language. And that way is… the way that gets your meaning across with as little effort as possible.

Language is our primary tool for describing our world. As such, when talking about most things, you can be a little fast and loose with meaning, which is where wordplay and other wonderful things come from. If we were always strict prescriptivists with word meanings, literature and the arts would suck. Even there, though, you can’t just suddenly decide that “dog” means “word” and then start using any old dog to mean anything you like.

Things get stricter the further down the line you go from describing things in terms of simile and metaphor to more surface-level entities to the basic structure of stuff like math and logic. At this level, just like there are laws of physics and rules of math, there are laws of meaning and rules of language.

Well, there’s a rule: the more important the word in the context, the more prescribed its meaning has to be.

In science, a “theory” is not just an idea that lives in someone’s head. It’s an explanation rooted in experimentation and data.

In logic, a “proposition” is not just a proposal. It’s an idea that has a specific truth value.

A “skeptic” doesn’t just disbelieve something. A skeptic seeks answers based on verifiable evidence.

A “hypothesis” is not just a guess, even an educated one. It’s an explanation that can actually be tested.

“Truth” is not the thing that gives you warm fuzzies. Truth is the way things really work.

“Two” is two. You wouldn’t try to redefine that, would you? Why these other words?

Yeah, some people use “theory” to just mean a guess. But that is not what a theory is. If it were, your iPhone probably wouldn’t work.

To stand by while people either ignorant or with an agenda try to redefine words like “theory” or “hypothesis” is not simply allowing for differences in language. Outside of scientific literacy, doing so is just a little annoying. Within science, it’s allowing pollution to infiltrate the very nature the method we use to describe reality.

We use terms like these to define specific, repeatable phenomena, and so the semantics of those terms in those contexts have to be relatively fixed and very conservative in order for the repeatable, verifiable things they describe to stay repeatable and verifiable. This is so because we as a language community have defined terms like “repeatable” and “verifiable” to mean things that have such relevance to our scientific method. So there are rules.

The rules were not imposed from on high by an authority. They just arose and we agreed to them because we needed to communicate specific things. We are, whenever we communicate, to some extent descriptively prescriptivist. Conversations in certain domains require that the terms used be and stay well-defined. Some more than others, but the domains in which the need for precision in language is enforced are the ones that often underpin all our other activities.

So I will continue to insist on using words in their correct, “prescribed” senses. I will continue to insist that “theory” means a specific thing in science and that you can’t horn in on that meaning with the layman’s meaning without diluting the structure of science itself. I will continue to insist that important words like “truth” mean specific things (at least until better words come along, like “truthiness”). I will continue to insist the music “affected” you deeply, but it did not “effect” you (unless the sound vibrations actually altered matter to create your body, in which case, I’m sorry, this must be very confusing for you). And I will continue to insist on harping on you when you mess up “there”/”they’re”/”their” and “your”/”you’re”, because I’ve heard your other ideas, and they’re not good.

Yes, it’s semantic quibbling, but if that’s all that stands between us and barbarous unmeaning, I’ll take it.

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In Defense of Semantic Quibbling

This is in the Bad Linguistics category, but not an official entry in the series, as I’d prefer to reserve that for scientifically inept interpretations of linguistic evidence, and not just people misunderstanding why linguistics matters, because that would generate so many entries the number on the post would overflow.

“Let’s not quibble about semantics.”

It’s the ultimate shutdown. How many times have you heard this in an argument? How many times have you used this in an argument? I’m going to tell you why it sucks.

What do people mean when they say not to quibble about semantics? Somewhat perversely, the best definition of the common use of “semantic quibbling” comes from, of all places, UrbanDictionary:

Often misused when quibbling about something someone said. In that context, the statement “That’s only semantics” would be more aptly phrased as “You’re just ‘splitting hairs on word meanings.”
Often used within the phrase “That’s only semantics”:
— as a blanket repudiation of precise communication.

— by persons advocating ‘subjective feelings’ over ‘objective description’ as a mainstay of communication.

The very concept of semantics is frequently disparaged by wishy-washy passive-aggressives who refuse to be accountable for their careless use of language or their deplorable lack of education.

Damn UrbanDictionary, you precise! Of course, below, it says this:

A stupid part of the english language in which people actually argue the meaning of words. As if I want to argue with you about what the damn word means to you. Go fuck yourselves you self absorbed bastards

Okay, never mind. That first guy on UrbanDictionary is precise. The second guy has no idea what it means to mean something, which is a state of affairs so bad, it’s not even wrong.

The only reason a word means something to anyone is because it means more or less the same thing to everyone who uses it. We have a term for things in which the same word signifies drastically unconnected things to different people: foreign languages. That’s why “Rat” means “council” in German.

Let me quibble about the semantics of quibbling about semantics for a minute. “Quibble,” since the 1610s, has been a cute term for “pun, play on words” with the dismissive association of a flimsy argument not worth considering. Semantics is the study of meaning, ultimately from the Greek semainein, to show or signify. So when you say “don’t quibble about semantics,” what you’re saying is “don’t bother me about what things mean.” Yeah, let’s not worry about what things mean, that’ll improve communication!

Increasingly, it seems it’s only semantic quibbling when you don’t like who’s doing it. There are times when the “quibble” is just an evasive tactic (President Bill Clinton’s “that depends what the definition of ‘is’ is” comes to mind), but when you’re arguing in areas that require precise definitions of actual, weighty terms, you damn well better quibble about the semantics of those terms before you even begin to debate. Not doing so makes argument impossible.

Let’s say you’re arguing about the existence of god, and one person defines “god” as “supernatural intelligent deity” and the other is using the definition of “life force.” Quibble! You’re going to be talking past each other otherwise.

Semantic quibbling is in the news now, with the NSA data-collection scandal:

[NSA director James Clapper said:] To me, collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the book off the shelf and opening it up and reading it … And this has to do with of course somewhat of a semantic, perhaps some would say too – too cute by half [definition]. But it is – there are honest differences on the semantics of what, when someone says ‘collection’ to me, that has a specific meaning, which may have a different meaning to [Sen. Wyden]

Is it not “collection” when the data is in electronic form? The answer may determine the fate of privacy in the information age. Tell me that’s not an important distinction to be made. Go on.

What if you’re debating a social issue that becomes deeply personal for one or more of the disputants, say, racism, or rape? You remember the Steubenville, Ohio case where people defending the perpetrators tried to say it wasn’t rape if the victim is drunk, and then people with brains were all “Hey fuck you it is so rape!”? The semantic argument shapes legislation, determines future policy, and affects the real lives of real people. If a crime is to be defined one way as opposed to another, the entire argument is semantic.

“Don’t quibble over semantics” is just a lazy person’s way of shutting down the argument. In many ways, any argument is semantic: two people disagree about the meaning of a proposition, whether in a broader context or just about the meaning itself. Each tries to convince the other to reach into their semantic bag an adopt their meaning and what it entails. Claiming to be concerned about higher things than mere “semantics” is a thought-terminating cliché people use when they get caught in a bad argument or are afraid of a little contention. Don’t give me that crap.

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One nation, under God, in English only

You have got to be kidding me.

Fury is brewing at Rocky Mountain High School, in Colorado, after a multicultural student group were encouraged to recite the Pledge of Allegiance over the loudspeaker in Arabic – replacing ‘one nation under God’ with ‘one nation under Allah’.


Oh noes. Teh Muslins. I can’t even summon exclamation points for this crap anymore.

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