Zelophehad’s Daughters

Preside-Plus-Plus or Double-Plus-Glack?: Chicken patriarchy and language change

Posted by Melyngoch

Any good descriptive linguist will tell you that words aren’t defined by the dictionary; they’re defined by the communities who use them. Consequently, a word like “preside” doesn’t necessarily mean, in the context of Mormonism, what a general-use dictionary says it means. While its secular/worldly/dictionary definition might be “to exercise authority or control”1 or some such, in Mormonism, it actually means “to be the seat of the authority while also being equal to everyone in a  non-hierarchical authority structure, and maybe also have veto power,” or some such.2

BLARRKT.

(That was my fascist nonsense buzzer going off.)

Yes, if you’ve been playing along at home, what you’ve heard is true: Language changes, semantic spaces shift, and different words adopt different meanings in communities that have different uses for them. This last is especially relevant to Mormonism, where we’ve developed a whole vocabulary of words with specialized meanings to describe the institutions, concepts, constructs, and experiences unique to Mormonism: testimony, sacrament, mission, tabernacle, calling, Primary, investigator, and so, so many more. It’s certainly totally possible for the word “preside” to have a specialized sense in the language community of Mormonism, which would not necessarily correlate to what the word means according to any standard dictionary of English.

However, not this meaning, and not in this way.

First off: words adopt specialized meanings in specific language communities, but not often wholly different meanings. That is, the way the word is used in the given community does not usually depart from the basic meaning associated with the word by the broader base of language; instead, it comes to apply to in more restricted context. Witness our specialized sense for “investigate”: we still mean “inquire into,” but we’ve specialized it to mean “inquire into the Church, usually by way of the missionary lessons.” When we say “Primary,” we haven’t gotten rid of the meaning “first” or “foundational”; we’ve just specified that it’s first within the series of block-meeting classes we’ll attend throughout our lives, and/or where we learn the foundational doctrines of the gospel.

It’s unusual for a word to whole-hog up and about-face its whole meaning in this specialization process, partially just because that’s not how language change works in general — semantic spaces expand and contract all the time (“cniht” was a word for any young man, not just one with armor and a horse, while the word “cool” as a slang term originally only applied to a specific range of jazz techniques, rather than anything someone approves of), but they tend not to just invert. But to get from the dictionary definition of “preside” to the apologetic one proposed above, you’re not just specializing; you’re reversing the meaning. Out in the world, “preside” means being in charge, having authority, ruling over stuff, taking control, but here in the church, it means . . . not being in charge? Language change just doesn’t swing that way.

Second: language change tends to work ground-up, not top-down. L’Académie française has, notoriously, tried really hard to convince French speakers that l’email is not a French word, (preferring the Frenchier courriel), but to no avail. No one cares what language authorities think; they care what language speakers around them are doing, and most of the other French-speakers around the French-speakers say l’email. No matter how much breath was expended telling us all not to call ourselves Mormons, most of us went right on calling ourselves Mormons, until the Church capitulated to popular usage and purchased mormon.org. Top-down legislation and language-planning can certainly influence language change, but very rarely directs it as directly as the top-down legislators would like it to.3

If the word “preside” had naturally evolved a secondary inverted meaning because of its use in non-presidey (in terms of the broader/dictionary definition) ways, then I would believe that that definition, unusual though the shift toward it be, could stick. Instead, we have GAs and apologists (and GAs acting as apologists) insisting that “preside” means something different from what we think it does, working to convince us of this, which if it were true for our language community, we would already know, because we would all be using it that way. The very fact that we have this argument over and over again all over the Bloggernaccle is evidence that there is not a general ground-level intuition for a specific Mormon sense of the word. And the fact is (though working out how this would look in practice would be a whole ‘nother can of blog-post), if those GAs and apologists really, really truly want to change what the word “preside” means for the Mormon language community, they need to stop just telling us what it means (or doesn’t mean), and start actually using it differently.

But that seems hard. I suspect it would be more efficient to scrap it altogether and move on to “glack,” while we still have the window to make it mean whatever we want it to mean.

  1. preside, v. OED, 3rd edition, March 2007; <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/150739> []
  2. This is really my best attempt at defining “preside” according to the most apologetic, non-in-charge definition I can come up with. If you have a better one, have at it, but you’ll also have to have-at whether it changes the way I’m analyzing the term’s deployment, below. []
  3. Similarly, first they told us we can’t call it in Homemaking anymore, because it’s Home, Family, and Personal Enrichment; then said tell us we couldn’t call it Enrichment anymore, because it’s just a plain-old Relief Society meeting, but the fact is that “Relief Society meeting” already refers to something else, and so people just go right on calling it in Enrichment, though often with the caveat that they know they’re not supposed to call it that. []

32 Responses to “Preside-Plus-Plus or Double-Plus-Glack?: Chicken patriarchy and language change”

  1. 1.

    There’s no doubt that preside in the context of marriage used to mean exactly what it sounds like. Now that that’s embarrassing, we want to just make the word mean something else by a process of just really, really wanting it to mean something else so we don’t have to be embarrassed. You got to hand it to us Mormons, we’re nothing if not optimistic about our ability to change reality by sheer will.

  2. 2.

    (why do I say “just” so much? [now willing myself into not saying that anymore])

  3. 3.

    You might like this site: http://corpus.byu.edu/gc/

    Doing a simple search for “preside” shows that (1) it is being used less often in General Conference (which says nothing about in ward use, obviously), and (2) it is almost always used with “over” or “called.” So clearly we are emphasizing that people who are especially “called” to preside do so “over” other people, all pointing to this “I’m better than you and an authority” idea. Annnyway, just thought you’d like that site! Can be useful for these sorts of word analyses. :)

  4. 4.

    Beautiful post. You really nailed the problem—they want something means “men preside” without anyone realizing it means “men are in charge.”

    Some of them are really more equal than others, aren’t they?

  5. 5.

    Thank you!
    Not to mention Pres. Eyring and others have very recently said sisters want to be lead. They want presiders to preside. There’s no meaning change going on.

  6. 6.

    Interesting your brought this up. Is this in reaction to the June Ensign? It defines presiding in the home as being accountable for the happiness of without holding authority over.

  7. 7.

    A large part of the problem, it seems to me, is that we are ineluctably wedded to the idea of the “patriarchal order” as the mode of governing the church. We therefore have to maintain some notion of fathers’ governance in the home, even if we are otherwise culturally ready to jettison notions of “presiding” in the family.

    Strangely, the increasingly egalitarian arrangements in families seem to be a significant reason women are willing/able to put up with male headship in the church–we may be stuck with the weird, bifurcated usage of “preside” to mean “preside” at church, and “anything-you-feel-works-for-your-family” at home for a good long while.

  8. 8.

    Footnote 3 – It’s not even Enrichment anymore, it’s an “Additional” RS meeting. Handbook 2, 9.4.2. Don’t know why leaders keep fiddling with the names of these non-Sunday meetings because it seems like the objectives and purposes of those meetings has stayed the same. As for what it means to preside, I think the June 2012 Ensign article referenced by Matt W. is good, but I wish it had been written by a member of the First Presidency of Quorum of the Twelve.

  9. 9.

    Following your own method, the first place to look for an LDS meaning of “preside” is its primary usage: who presides at a meeting, which may be the person who conducts a meeting or quorum class but which also may not even conduct the meeting or say anything at all during the meeting or class. It’s a fairly passive term.

    The term is applied to families by analogy. A hundred years ago, or even in 1950, that might have been a good or helpful analogy, but it doesn’t appear to be so good an analogy (that is, it doesn’t really provide any helpful insight) in 2012. So the general membership pretty much ignores it and makes the flexible institution of marriage work on whatever terms work for any given couple.

    One might say that LDS leadership lags the general membership by a couple of generations on this topic. But even the Proclamation — not generally regarded as a progressive document — sounds the themes of equality and flexibility: In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners. Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.

    So I don’t think the term “preside” really does much work in the average LDS family of 2012, except as a lever for wives to nudge husbands to be more committed to promoting things like family prayer, FHE, and scripture study.

    My uncharacteristically blunt conclusion: You’ve got it wrong. “Preside” is not used as justification for men to assert patriarchal authority over wives or families — most modern LDS counsel is firmly against that sort of approach in the home. The term actually stands for (as it is used in practice) women and LDS leaders trying to persuade husbands to do things in their home they might not be so excited about doing (prayer, FHE, scripture study, etc.).

  10. 10.

    “My uncharacteristically blunt conclusion: You’ve got it wrong. “Preside” is not used as justification for men to assert patriarchal authority over wives or families — most modern LDS counsel is firmly against that sort of approach in the home. The term actually stands for (as it is used in practice) women and LDS leaders trying to persuade husbands to do things in their home they might not be so excited about doing (prayer, FHE, scripture study, etc.).”

    You’ve turned the cart upside down and are still trying to get the donkey to pull it along. What you say is as sexist as the uses of “preside” have been and are in LDS practice. It just has a different target in its sights: males instead of females. Active LDS all know pretty much what preside means in terms of priesthood in LDS practice and how its been and is used to exclude females from power and authority. Lots of “actives” might ignore it on a personal or familial level, but you can’t do that in a ward or stake family — as we’re so fond of characterizing those patriarchially-run organizational entities — can you?

  11. 11.

    Great post, Melyngoch. I agree with your descriptive linguisitc approach. A couple of footnotes that I find interesting:

    1. The word “preside” derives from the Latin praesidere, which literally means “to sit in front of,” from the preposition prae “before” and the verb sedere “to sit.” So when your bishop or stake president “presides” at a meeting by sitting in an elevated position before the congregation on the stand, he is very literally “presiding.” Of course, sitting on the stand is emblematic of authority, and the word came to mean “to rule, to lead, to govern.”

    2. That this is so should be clear from our word “president,” which is simply a participial form of the same verb used as a noun; IE “the one who presides.”

    3. The attempt to hedge the meaning of the word in the family sphere is of relatively recent vintage. I’m old enough to remember the days before there was such a thing as chicken patriarchy. So this quote: “A Latter-day Saint husband or father presides over his wife and family in much the same way a bishop, stake president, or elder’s quorum president presides over the group to which he is called.” Brent A. Barlow, “Strengthening the Patriarchal Order in the Home,” Ensign (Feb. 1973).

    http://www.lds.org/ensign/1973/02/strengthening-the-patriarchal-order-in-the-home?lang=eng

  12. 12.

    Hate the word ‘preside’ and all the shady ways we Mormons use it. Hate. Thanks for this interesting look into it all.

  13. 13.

    Instead, we have GAs and apologists (and GAs acting as apologists) insisting that “preside” means something different from what we think it does, working to convince us of this, which if it were true for our language community, we would already know, because we would all be using it that way.

    And yet geeks continue to yell about how the community misuses words like entropy, uncertainty principle and other scientific jargon that has entered the community.

    I think the effort to change community meaning can be beneficial. While it doesn’t always or even usually work, it does enough that I think it worth the effort. These sorts of approaches can change both the denotive and connotative aspects of words. For connotation of course the most famous example is of course “queer” which was taken up by gay activists in the 80’s and they successfully took control of the term. (Not completely – but more so than many expected)

    I think that while I agree it’s hard to change the community meaning of a word its even harder to get a community to use a neologism that refers to the same thing as an existing word. It’s a little easy to take up a seldom used word that refers to the same thing and then provide more nuance to that reference and modify the connotation.

    If one doesn’t like the attempt to modify the sense of “preside” perhaps it would be helpful to simply offer a different term with less of the negative connotation and aspects of reference? I’m ears for suggested synonyms you think would work. I’m just skeptical neologism work outside of small more technical communities or as slang within sub communities that then moves to the masses.

  14. 14.

    So I don’t think the term “preside” really does much work in the average LDS family of 2012, except as a lever for wives to nudge husbands to be more committed to promoting things like family prayer, FHE, and scripture study.

    I think this is right as a practical matter. It’s a way to convince fathers to take more initiative on things they should be doing. But is that a bad thing?

    There is of course a lot of understandable negative history with the term. And it continues to be abused by some to excuse sinful behavior. But it would be useful before condemning the term entirely to ask if it has any positive connotative functions.

  15. 15.

    Clark’s discussion of the linguistic niceties misses a crucial point: this is not a linguistic problem. We focus on the linguistic issues because it seems that if, perhaps, we could soften the word “preside,” it wouldn’t offend our Western liberal notions of justice–embodied in the description of husbands and wives as “equal partners”–quite so much. But of course it does prick our consciences, and though we’re content to let modernity order relationships in families, we are not (yet) able to see our way clear to an ecclesiastical structure that accords with our moral intuitions about women’s worth and capacity.

    There simply isn’t any language that makes “separate but equal” a reality. There’s certainly no language that reconciles “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” with the gendered “divine design” set forth by the Proclamation on the family.

  16. 16.

    Kristine, I only focused in on the linguistic issue here as that was what the OP focused in on. I probably fully agree with you regard bad behavior by men and would probably largely agree with how society incentivizes such behavior. But I completely agree that the semantic issue isn’t ultimately that interesting or important.

    The problem with saying there isn’t any language that makes “separate but equal” a reality is that of course every individual is separate and we want to say we are all equal or should be all equal in some sense. As I suggested at BCC as well as LDS-Herm I think there’s an inherent problem with our notion of “equality.” But my sense from BCC is that people don’t want to go there.

  17. 17.

    Actually, I think the supposed issues with the definition of equality were nicely treated here: http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2011/04/19/actually-sameness-and-equality-have-a-lot-in-common/

    (And I’m not on LDS-Herm, so unaware of whatever you’ve said there).

  18. 18.

    Sorry, could have sworn you were.

  19. 19.

    I was. I am no longer. :)

  20. 20.

    BTW – thanks for the link. I’m going to start back up my blog and will refer to it. Someone on LDS-Phil linked to a paper by Peter Western from 1982 called “The Idea of Equality.” His argument is that it is empty of content. Unfortunately I don’t at present have access to JSTOR so I could only read the abstract. I disagree with that view but I do think there is something odd and problematic about the idea.

    BTW2 – I actually largely agree that most “differences” between men and women aren’t or aren’t important or else problematize the relationship between individuals and the mean (i.e. silly things like map ability or the like). So I think that many arguments for different but equal are simply horrible. That doesn’t mean I’m prepared to say everyone is the same. As I said many times I think we have to think the topic independent of the gender issue where there is all this baggage. (And understandably people want to reject a notion used for repression) That said I think we’re a bit too hasty in how we apply equality.

    Interestingly that’s because I want to say people with differences are equal. I think I’m equal with the Bishop. I think I’m equal with the police officer that gives me a ticket and so forth.

  21. 21.

    Clark, you may feel that you’re of equal value as a human being or something like that, but you are manifestly not equal to the police officer in the way that legal and civic institutions and other people will treat you, just as Mormon women may feel respected, valued and in some sense equally worthy as human beings, but they simply are not equal in the functioning of the church as an institution. (I’d submit that their functional inequality makes it virtually impossible for men to truly respect them as equals, but that’s an arguable point).

  22. 22.

    But Kristine, once again avoiding the gender examples for obvious reasons, I honestly and earnestly feel completely equal to the bishop in the functioning of the Church even though he has duties, responsibilities and powers that are different from me.

    As you said some differences are used to create differences of value or support them illegitimately. I just don’t see why the bishop having a different role from me makes him better than me. (After all if we are unequal we are saying one is better than the other)

    If you appeal to the Bishop being able to do more though you quickly run into the problem that some people have different skills (either naturally or developed) and yet we certainly don’t want to say someone with better organizational skills is better than someone without them. So I think we tread on dangerous ground when pushing difference as either equality or inequality. As the story you linked to suggests it’s quite easy to appeal to properties to justify difference when they don’t seem that important in the big picture.

  23. 23.

    Clark, no the bishop is not better than you because he is the bishop and you are not. Neither is the bishop better than Kristine or me because he is the bishop and we are not. Nevertheless, you might one day be the bishop, whereas neither Kristine nor I are likely ever to be the bishop – never, if things remain as they are. And there are those who think of the bishop as better whether he is or not and therefore they also think that women can never be as good as men, who might someday be better.

  24. 24.

    It’s not that he’s better; it’s that he can veto my decisions, regardless of my expertise or inspiration. That’s all–it has nothing to do with whether we are spiritual or intellectual or whatever kinds of equals; it has to do with institutional authority. He has it, you have it, and I am not allowed to have it.

  25. 25.

    Ok, what Kristine said.

  26. 26.

    Marta – note I was specifically not addressing gender issues. Just trying to get at the nature of equality.

    Kristine – but then you run into the problem that if we appeal to specific powers and making people not equal you then have our abilities making us not equal. So a well organized person versus someone who is poorly organized are unequal because they have unequal power. (Once again let’s hold the gender issue in abeyance so as to avoid baggage)

    If equality is determined by power (and shifting roles to exercise power) then it’s just extremely problematic.

    I think in your latter part (avoiding the gender issue) you move towards being switchable as the issue. Thus a bishop and I are equal if we’re potentially switchable. You might say a police officer and I are equal because in theory back when I was younger I could have gone to the police academy and become an officer. (I recognize you don’t fully make that move – I’m suggesting it as an option)

  27. 27.

    Clark, there’s an enormous difference between performing differently by virtue of (God-given) talent, and being treated differently by virtue of arbitrary, man-made rules. In the case of talent, the playing field is equal and some people are just more skillful or more dedicated or more willing to offer and magnify their talents–those gifts are, on the Christian model, cause for celebration. Christ by example, and Paul by precept, taught that differing gifts are both necessary and beautiful in the kingdom of God.

    But in the case of women’s exclusion from priesthood, we are dealing with a wholly arbitrary condition over which women have no control–they cannot choose to develop the talent of femaleness or bury it in the ground. It is not magnified by being consecrated. It is one of the arbitrary and insignificant differences, unrighteously used to create distinctions in human society, which are to be subsumed by citizenship in Christ’s kingdom where there is “neither bond nor free, Jew nor Greek, male or female.”

    Or, briefly, being female is not the same as being less capable, as your formulation comes dangerously close to suggesting.

    (Switchability is completely irrelevant, I think).

  28. 28.

    And sorry not to “hold the gender issue in abeyance”–that seems completely impossible, since that’s what we’re talking about. What you call “baggage” is, in fact, the central problem.

  29. 29.

    The thing is, there is a whole body of literature out there about “servant leadership,” which very much fits into the LDS sense of presiding. In that model the leader still holds the authority, as a father is the conduit of the priesthood into his home. But things are done ideally through consensus, and the leader is accountable to the people he serves, not a dictator over them.

    Since that whole ideology exists outside of the church (I had to study it in grad school at a state U far from Utah), I don’t think it is fair to make out like the church is using an obscure and opposite meaning. Using a less common meaning, if you want. I don’t see it as an about-face.

    But then, I am old enough to remember when “gay” meant light-hearted.

  30. 30.

    I think Dave’s uncharacteristically blunt conclusion in #9 is correct on the ground level in Mormonism. As offensive as the language saying fathers should “preside” in the family is to many, in practice the term is mostly used to batter Mormon fathers to get them to take an active/leadership role in churchy/spiritual things in the family.

    So while “chicken patriarchy” language may be really irritating, at the local/family levels that very language is used to beat up otherwise apathetic Mormon men on a regular basis.

    (That’s probably not much consolation but still interesting I think)

  31. 31.

    Geoff, I think Dave’s framing is a big kinder than yours. I like Hawkgrrrl’s analysis as well, from her recent post at Wheat and Tares:

    While we’re speculating on priesthood, I think a sociological argument can be made that priesthood service ties men to families and makes them feel needed in ways that they otherwise might not. In Spain, most men would spend their evenings in the bar with other men leaving the women at home to raise the kids, but when they joined the church, they became more family-centric and spent time serving others and supporting their families because it was their priesthood duty. Women already had a family-centric existence in that culture. If women also had the priesthood, it would reduce their reliance on men for those things. A role separation model may be more effective at creating family bonds (creating mutual reliance and respect for each other), improving the way men treat their families and others, and provide more support to children on the whole across large groups of people. Obviously, that’s more of an 80/20 principle – suitable to 80% of society, but not others.

    In this sociological model, both motherhood and priesthood are duties and service provided to others, not gifts God gives to an individual. But E. Oaks didn’t say that. It’s my own slightly more palatable spin on what he said.

  32. 32.

    Ok, I now know that the spam filter has been trained to block any “ethesis” connection in the ID section.

    I’m going to do a shorter response, though I think, Geoff, that Clark’s language is not as harsh as yours, and I’ll quote Hawkgrrrl from her recent Wheat and Tares post:

    While we’re speculating on priesthood, I think a sociological argument can be made that priesthood service ties men to families and makes them feel needed in ways that they otherwise might not. In Spain, most men would spend their evenings in the bar with other men leaving the women at home to raise the kids, but when they joined the church, they became more family-centric and spent time serving others and supporting their families because it was their priesthood duty. Women already had a family-centric existence in that culture. If women also had the priesthood, it would reduce their reliance on men for those things. A role separation model may be more effective at creating family bonds (creating mutual reliance and respect for each other), improving the way men treat their families and others, and provide more support to children on the whole across large groups of people. Obviously, that’s more of an 80/20 principle – suitable to 80% of society, but not others.

    In this sociological model, both motherhood and priesthood are duties and service provided to others, not gifts God gives to an individual. But E. Oaks didn’t say that. It’s my own slightly more palatable spin on what he said.

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