Jun 18

Practicing Polygamy Versus Being Polygamous

How do we describe Mormon polygamy? I’ve often seen it said that 19th century Mormons “practiced” polygamy. For example, here’s President Hinckley on Larry King Live in 1998:

The figures I have are from — between two percent and five percent of our people were involved in [polygamy]. It was a very limited practice; carefully safeguarded. In 1890, that practice was discontinued.

There’s lots to criticize here, but what I’m concerned with is his use of the word “practice.” The word is used to minimize how central polygamy was, to demote it to just a minor incidental thing that some Church members did.

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Feb 13

Let’s Make the Hymnbook More of a His and Hers Book

This Sunday in sacrament meeting we sang the hymn O God, the Eternal Father. I noticed this time, more than previous times, the gender-exclusive language:

That sacred, holy off’ring,
By man least understood…

With no apparent beauty,
That man should him desire…

To walk upon his footstool
And be like man, almost…

I understand that when W.W. Phelps wrote these lyrics back in the 1830’s, gender-exclusive language was the norm, it was the way people talked, wrote, and thought. I also understand that in many instances such gender-exclusive language was typically understood to mean both men and women. I suspect that Brother Phelps had no overt desire to leave anyone out; by using “man” he may have been simply using the default term for the word “humans”. Continue reading

Mar 13

Gender-neutral Language in Conference

In a recent discussion in a Facebook group, I guessed that one way the Church might have improved recently in its treatment of women is in GAs using more gender-neutral language in talks. My memory is that President Hinckley, for example, when he quoted scriptures talking about men, would sometimes explicitly point out that it included women as well. But I’ve never actually studied the question systematically. Until now.

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Dec 29

“I am no man!”

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King, Éowyn, a human noblewoman, disguises herself as a man and goes to battle, eventually facing the dreaded Witch-King of Angmar. Upon seeing her, armored like a warrior, the Witch-King scoffs, citing an ancient elven prophecy that no living man can kill him. Éowyn removes her helmet, showing herself to be a woman, and cries “I am no man!”* as she slays him.

I must confess, every time the debate over the pros and cons of gender-inclusive language resurfaces in the bloggernacle, my mind returns to that scene, and to the question I had when I first read The Lord of the Rings as a child: How did Éowyn know that the prophecy was referring specifically to human males, and not to humans in general? It wasn’t at all obvious to me. Continue reading

Apr 29

What does “hearken” mean?

This ended up a little longer than I’d intended, but I like my findings too much to trim it down. If you’re not totally entranced by descriptive lexicography, I can’t say I understand, because I don’t (what’s wrong with you?); however, I can suggest that you read the first two paragraphs, the bolded paragraph in the middle, and the last four or five.  You’ll get the argument I’m making, if not the methodology, or the fun.


The comments on Apame’s fine post below have turned me to this question, and rather than threadjack her understandable envy of those who get to fine-tune their own wedding vows, I thought I’d give it its own post. Because honestly, I’m not sure I know what this word means. Continue reading

Oct 04

St. Augustine and the Sunday School Teacher

In reflecting on the value of figurative language in On Christian Doctrine, Augustine explains that “I contemplate the saints more pleasantly when I envisage them as the teeth of the Church cutting off men from their errors and transferring them to her body.” I’m totally with him in that I love the idea of Aquinas, Joan of Arc, and hey, maybe Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon too, chomping us down into the digestive tract of Christian devotion; it offers something for the imagination to chew on during a dull sacrament meeting. Continue reading

Oct 11

Why I Love Poetry

This semester I’m taking a course in French phonetics in mild defiance of my department’s new stricter graduation timelines; I’ve already fulfilled the language requirement, and I simply want to improve my pronunciation. It’s fascinating. As I told Lynnette enthusiastically over the phone last weekend, “We’re learning all about where in the mouth you say the different vowels!” Not being one of the family’s language nuts, she said, affectionately and dryly, “How boring!” (Acid criticism from a woman who teaches Thomas Aquinas to grad students.) And we both had a good laugh. Continue reading

Sep 07

In Praise of Feminine Language

A couple of months ago Idahospud favored us with a fascinating analysis of blogging genderlect over at FMH, which reminded me of a long-simmering desire to take a manly stand for womanspeak. (Oh, the androgyny.)

Every once in a while the Bloggernacle revisits the familiar critique of the stereotypical LDS woman’s inability to make a definitive statement. (The Sugar Beet did the definitive satire which, sadly, I can’t seem to find.) Periodically this alleged inability is bemoaned hereabouts, and there’s certainly something to the criticism. From time to time I have encountered LDS women who seem so uncertain of themselves, so timid, so petrified of offending that they are unable to take a stand or risk disagreement about anything. But I’ve known more LDS women who have no difficulty speaking their minds than I have LDS women who can’t summon the confidence to speak definitively. Passive-aggressiveness and backstabbing, sadly, seem able to coexist quite happily with discursive confidence, and seem also to flourish in a culture in which niceness is the supreme virtue. Continue reading

Oct 08

(The) Bishop

When I was a teenager, one of my good friends omitted the use of an article when talking about the bishop: for example, “I’m going to talk to bishop” as opposed to “I’m going to talk to the bishop.” I figured it was simply a language quirk of her family (and since I come from a family where people use “clo” for the singular of “clothes,” and have invented verbs like “loonify,” I’m hardly in a position to judge anyone else’s use of language as strange.) Continue reading

Jul 17

Why Words Matter

One of the things that we sometimes discuss in my Women’s Studies classes is the issue of language. Many feminists critique the use of “man” or “mankind” to refer to men and women, the use of “he” as a generic pronoun, etc. Feminists argue that inequality in language occurs on a spectrum of related discriminations, and you can’t eliminate all discrimination if you don’t address all the contributing practices (including things that may seem inconsequential, such as using the term “mankind”). I see a lot of resistance in my classes to this argument. The students recognize that there’s an inequality in language use, but they just don’t see why it matters. According to them, this language doesn’t hurt anyone. Many of the female students in my classes admit that it’s not something that offends them, and so they don’t see why we need to change our language use. Continue reading