Can a person be a genocide?

August 7, 2008

I can’t help but comment on this very strange usage (from a comment at Dispatches):

So, were [sic] having a discussion about the applicability of a book written by middle-eastern [sic] goat herders (who were also genocides), added to by bipolar preachers and opportunists, edited and translated by politicians, and interpreted by more politicians, scam-artists and cult leaders.

Yeah, I can [sic] were [sic] all going to learn something valuable and useful from this. (emphasis mine)

I was very puzzled by this usage, since genocide is so very rarely used to describe people – it is almost solely used to describe events or even extended campaigns (like the Holocaust, which is the backdrop for the word’s coining by Raphael Lemkin, a Pole, in 1944). What is still stranger is that this usage is meant to describe the perpetrators of genocide as opposed to the victims.

I am somewhat comforted in observing that this usage is not widely recognized; the OED only mentions it in the context of a thing or event.

One appropriate Google hit came up in the first few tries:

  • Besides, would anybody blame the US troops of genocide for bringing this disease to Europe, then why are there people saying Spanish conquistadores were genocides when it is proved that most of the indians who died after the Spanish arrival in the new world were because of illnesses that did not exist in America? (source)

Strangely, suicide – a word with a similar structure – does in fact have this sort of usage:

One who dies by his own hand; one who commits self-murder. Also, one who attempts or has a tendency to commit suicide.

1732 Lond. Mag. I. 252 The Suicide owns himself..unequal to the Troubles of Life.
1769 BLACKSTONE Comm. IV. xiv. 189 The suicide is guilty of a double offence: one spiritual, in invading the prerogative of the Almighty..: the other temporal, against the king.
1838 W. BELL Dict. Law Scot. 953 The wounds inflicted by a suicide upon himself are usually in the front, and in an oblique direction.
1861 F. NIGHTINGALE Nursing (ed. 2) 77 A fourth [patient], who is a depressed suicide, requires a little cheering.
1870 R. C. JEBB Sophocles’ Electra (ed. 2) 47/1 Suicides used to be interred with a stake through the body, ‘to lay the ghost’.

So I suppose it’s not unthinkable that the perpetrator of genocide might be called a genocide, but the usage is still rather odd.

Has anyone else noticed this usage? I find it curious and would like to see if it is more common than my search has indicated.


On correct meanings and “dusty old words”

July 10, 2008

As any frequent reader here should have picked up on by now, I hate false etymologies. I hate to say it, but the study of word origins has been co-opted for so many ill purposes (the infamous argumentum ad etymologia), and I despise that given that I enjoy the study so much.

So I’m especially irritated to see Graham Kendrick, a well-known Christian worship songwriter, make a statement like this:

Orthodoxy sounds like a dusty old word, but actually it means right glory, in other words representing God as he actually is.

There may be a nugget of truth in here: the Greek doxa, from which the word is derived (along with ortho, “correct”), is sometimes translated as “glory” or “praise” (c.f. Matthew 4:8). And in a sense, I think I can give Kendrick a little bit of poetic license, since orthodoxy may have at its roots a desire to glorify God by accurately representing Him. That’s fine, but the word “orthodox” doesn’t mean that – it means “correct belief.”

The OED says this regarding etymology:

[< post-classical Latin orthodoxus, ortodoxus, adjective and noun (4th cent.; freq. in Jerome) and its etymon Hellenistic or Byzantine Greek òρθóδοξος right in opinion (see note), person holding a right opinion < ancient Greek òοθο- ORTHO- comb. form + δóξα opinion, glory (see DOXOLOGY n.). In English perhaps partly via Middle French, French orthodoxe (1431 as adjective, a1565 as noun). Compare Italian ortodosso (1478 as adjective).
Ancient Greek òρθοδοξεîν ‘to have a right opinion’ appears first in Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics, but remains rare. The cognate noun òρθοδοξíα appears first in Origen; the adjective óρθóδοξος does not appear until the late 3rd, or early 4th cent. With the exception of uses in commentaries on Nicomachean Ethics the group of words is restricted almost entirely to Christian writers.] [Ed. Greek characters should now display correctly]

So the usage existed prior to the Greek writings of the NT, and certainly one cannot say that orthodoxy does not today refer to belief, not to glory of praise.

Finally, a note: words, like books, don’t get dusty if they are used, and orthodox has been in great use for centuries now, thanks in large part to the insistence of religious organizations’ desire to see correct belief (i.e. adherence to their doctrines) among those who associate themselves with the organization. What Kendrick seems to be doing here is setting up orthodox as an elitist word, high and lofty and out of the comprehension of the common man. This is of course untrue; orthodoxy is easily understood by anyone who has been introduced to the idea of believing in the right things.

Ignorant assertions

May 29, 2008

I’m amazed sometimes at the things people say – not just because they can be particularly ignorant (although they sometimes are) but because it would take almost no effort for anyone to verify.

This is particularly obvious when it comes to etymology. I’ve pointed out other instances where individuals made assertions that were demonstrably false (to support arguments that were wrongheaded), but this one just got me:

God is not ‘innocent‘ — the word actually means ‘ignorant‘ — …

No, it most certainly does not – the root of innocent is Latin nocere, “to harm.” It is exceedingly apparent in the phrase (relevant to doctors in particular) Primum non nocere – “First, do no harm.”

Etymology is very seldom a good place to start an argument, but if you’re going to do it, at least get your facts straight.

A contradiction in terms?

May 24, 2008

I’ve been using the handle “Christian Cynic” for about four years now (which I did not steal from this Christian cynic, I promise), and I’ve heard plenty of things about a supposed contradiction between Christianity and cynicism. I’ve responded before (although that piece is lost in the æther of the Internet, an artifact of when I long ago had the domain, but I happened to find something more direct (all bolding mine):

It is hardly too much to say that men believe in us as Christians only so long as they believe that we are kind: only so long as they do not know that we are bitter, and retaliative, and alert to take offense, and cruel in misjudgment. When the veil is lifted and they know the facts, they have finished with us, and our profession of religion is but the minister of bitterness in them. Kindness is a beautiful thing in any man: it is an imperative necessity in a Christian. A Christian cynic is a contradiction in terms. You know what I mean: if I add that of course a Christian man is to have his opinion of unworthy conduct like other people, and that he also has the right to entertain righteous indignation against evil—you know that in saying that I am but echoing words that rise within you as self-defense against the sword of self-accusation. For you and I in practice, brethren, know quite well the difference between indignation against evil and bitterness against persons we dislike. (“Bitterness,” sermon by G.A. Johnston Ross, pub. in The University of Chicago Press; available through JSTOR)

I almost feel that a subtle wink to the audience would have been in order after the last statement.

And this isn’t the only sermon to rail away at Christian cynicism:

Cynics live in a cold, lonely and unproductive world.

And a “Christian cynic” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

    A Christ-follower cannot remain a cynic.

I do not mean that a Christian can’t become cynical, but I do mean they should not remain that way.

Lovely image, isn’t it?

Fortunately for me (and others who self-identify this way – and there are more than a few I’ve found), these things need not apply to individuals who consider themselves cynics.

Read the rest of this entry »


May 9, 2008

After seeing this post (and corresponding image), a thought occurred to me: the problem with Wikipedia is not merely that the information contained within is any less reliable than “closed” encyclopedias* but that the process is totally transparent. It might be claimed that the methodology itself is flawed, but that seems implausible: the main difference is that traditional encyclopedias exercise editorial power before publication, whereas Wikipedia exercises it throughout the publication process (because all content is public, even content which has been removed but remains in history as proof that someone tried to publish such-and-such content). The process of editing is entirely transparent to everyone, which has resulted in some interesting observations about the politicization of the editorial process. (Is anyone really surprised?)

Granted, I don’t know that I consider Wikipedia reliable – I definitely won’t allow my future students to use it as a primary source, although I will probably tell them that it is good to consider as a compendium of information that should be verified through other means – but I think that transparency is in many ways a good thing, not merely because of the unorthodox authorship of the encyclopedia but also because it’s good for others (especially students, I think) to see the process by which information is deemed accurate and reputable (and hence, knowledge). If it’s ugly and full of complications, then all the better for our view of knowledge, not worse: we’ll start to get the idea that knowledge, like many things, is fundamentally a struggle between competing individuals. Such empirical information is invaluable to the critical mind.

*Linguistic observation: Encyclopedia is one of those odd words which has a plural ending (sing. -pedium) but which is never conjugated as a plural, as some would have us do even when words like media which often function as singulars rather than plural.

Language and morality

April 4, 2008

Cross-posted at Docere Est Discere

As a part of my current degree program, I am currently enrolled in a class entitled “Applying Writing Theory” in which we study various rhetorical and writing theories, including some discussion of grammar specifically. Today, we covered the first two chapters of a book entitled “Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace,” the first on avoiding confusing language (which reminded me of the amusing saying, “Eschew obfuscation“) and the second on correctness. The latter got me thinking about two fairly different subjects: language and morality. Read the rest of this entry »

What not to do when clarifying an association

March 15, 2008

One big problem I notice frequently with people is that people want to take grammatical rules of word structure and universalize them. When we see an ending on a word, we know what that ending means from other words, and we attempt to apply the meaning to the word in question. This isn’t a bad idea, but it can backfire.

Case in point, from comments left on Ed Brayton’s blog:

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