Elie's Expositions

A bereaved father blogging for catharsis... and for distraction. Accordingly, you'll see a diverse set of topics and posts here, from the affecting to the analytical to the absurd. Something for everyone, but all, at the core, meeting a personal need.

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Monday, October 10, 2005

Verbal Inflation

Some of you may have wondered why I write out the word "God" rather than using the circumlocution "G-d" as many/most Ortho-bloggers do. This is quite deliberate; I feel on principle that writing "G-d" is unnecessary and even borders on the pretentious. This view has been supported by no less an authority than Rav Soloveichik, who famously, when asked by a student whether it was necessary to write "G-d" in place of "God", answered by walking up to the blackboard, writing "God", and immediately erasing it.

As background, the source for the practice of writing "G-d" is the prohibition of erasing or unnecessarily writing the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter most holy Divine name, spelled in Hebrew with a "Yud", a "Hey", a "Vav", and another "Hey", and not read aloud nowadays but pronounced as "Adonoy" ["Lord"] in reciting blessings or reading the Torah. This initial prohibition was reasonably extended to include erasure of less central, but still holy Divine names in Hebrew. Extending this stricture to synonyms in languages other than the holy tongue was, in the Rav's opinion a generation ago, going too far.

And it hasn't stopped there! To show how ridiculous things have gotten: the word "Hashem" - meaning literally "the name" - is often used conversationally instead of pronouncing even the word "Adonoy" unnecessarily. Well, now my kids bring home sheets from school with "Hashem" written as "H-shem". What's next? Pass the "ginger kale"? I'm waiting for someone to decide that we need to leave our wallets outside the door of the bathroom because money has "In God We Trust" written on it.

Of course this "verbal inflation" is not unique to Orthodox Judaism but is part of a general trend, led by Madison Avenue but pervasive throughout society. When I was a kid you could buy "small", "medium", and "large" drinks - now it's "large", "extra large" and "super" (aka "you'll be taking this kid to the bathroom all through the movie"). We can all think of numerous other examples. The net effect is to deaden the ability for language to convey meaning and make it more difficult for people to communicate clearly.

What actually got me thinking about this issue was a commercial for a credit card company I heard on the radio this morning. It told the story of a woman who had ordered a very specific cabinet from a furniture vendor, only to have it delivered with several errors - wrong size, color, etc. The point of the ad was that the credit card company agreed to cancel the charge, even though the vendor would not make good. But what struck me was the storyteller's statement that when the wrong cabinet was delivered, "I was devastated". Devastated?? Over a less than perfect piece of furniture? What word then is left to use for this? Or this? Or even this?

But I won't say that this linguistic degeneration makes me furious. Annoyed should do.


At 10/10/05, 1:01 PM, Anonymous Tova Menken said...

I heard that commercial and was bothered by the same thing. I had a teacher in seminary who used to complain when people used expressions like, "Oh I could kill you..." and the like. I wonder if this all fits under the al cheyt of "B'Siach Sifsosainu"
Keep writing and keep strong.

At 10/10/05, 1:08 PM, Blogger Elder of Ziyon said...

My current boss fakes huge enthusiasm for trivial things. Heonce asked me where I was going. I told him it was a meeting about subject X, hardly interesting. He answered, "Awesome!"

At 10/10/05, 2:02 PM, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

All I can say is that is very ql. ;)

At 10/10/05, 9:37 PM, Blogger Alan aka Avrum ben Avrum said...

Dear Elie,

Right on the mark! This needed to be said! The pomposity and the "holier than thou" approach is, I think, rampant throughtout the orthodox world, especially among the ba'alei (sic!) tschuva. If I may offer up another example of inflated Jewish verbiage ... I am frequently annoyed by the practice of responding "Baruch Ha Shem to a whole litany of questions-which in many cases-are not answered at all by responding "Blessed is The Name".

"So ... how's by you?"
"Baruch Ha Shem!" (read: "I'm well, thank you. You?)
"Huh?" .... or

"Hey, I really like your shoes!"
"Baruch Ha Shem!"
(read: "Gee, thanks! They were half off at DSW!")
"Come again? Say what?"
... okay, I could well go on, but I won't!
Baruch Ha Shem! Oops! :)

Alan @TheBookofBen

At 10/10/05, 9:43 PM, Blogger Fraggle said...

I agree. I also refuse to put a dash in "God". I refuse to conform to the silliness that seems to be all the rage, even with non-jews, perhaps they think if jews do it then it's the thing to copy.

At 10/11/05, 12:55 AM, Blogger Mirty said...

I think for me that pause-to-put-in-the-dash is a helpful reflection on that fact that I'm referring to a rather important being in the great scheme of things. The capitalization helps too. (Both slow down ones typing.) I don't think there is anything wrong with writing God, but sometimes I like to distinguish between everyday use of the word, in the "Oh God Gee Whiz" way, and thoughtful use of the word. Didn't mean to seem pretentious anyway.

I've had Ginger Tofu but never Ginger Kale. ;) Must be an acquired taste.

At 10/11/05, 2:44 AM, Blogger SS said...

I also agree about the extreme way language is used nowadays, and for years, I've refused to say, "I'm starving". I'm not, thank God. That's all there is to it.

At 10/11/05, 9:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an excellent post. As a child of the 80s I am definitely guilty of cheapening the English language with claims of "It's the best movie" or "I love that song." My mother and I had a conversation about this the other day and she used the exact example you mentioned, the inappropriate use of the word devastated. It was an good reminder of something I definitely need to be more mindful of and improve on, just like your post was! Thanks!

At 10/14/05, 1:46 PM, Blogger benros52589 said...

be strong and i write g-d bec all rebbeim ive had done it

At 10/17/05, 12:48 PM, Blogger Z said...

I am glad you wrote this. I have been writing G-d...for no other reason than quid pro quo. I knew the hows and whys...but your argument is very well done!!! Extremity in any situation is a bad thing and religious extremisim can be particularly disturbing.

At 10/31/05, 12:48 PM, Blogger The Observer said...

What really got to me was an edition of Tehillim with English translation that used G-d, and perhaps even L-rd, even though the Hebrew used the tetragrammaton it its full glory.

At 11/22/05, 4:00 PM, Anonymous Steven said...

I agree that it is pompous to write "G-d" and "L-rd." If these English names are so holy, then why are we allowed to speak them out loud?

It seems crazy to hyphenate God's name. I've seen the "religious" do the same with Jesus' name "J-sus." Does that mean that Jesus is holy to Jews? What about when they hyphenate a curse word?


At 8/16/06, 7:25 PM, Blogger Lady-Light said...

The truth is, we use hyperbole for everyday occurrences, and as a result very often there are no words left to describe major, serious events (your last 'this' got to me),or we just become blase about them. Altough I understand and even agree with you and Rabbi Soloveichik on the absurdity of creating one syag la-Torah after another until the real reason behind the law is lost,I will continue to write the word "G-d" hyphenated, for myself: It helps me remember to be reverent and fulfill the adage, 'shiviti Hashem le-negdi tamid. It's just a Lady-Light thing for me; feel free...


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