Monday, July 11, 2005

Word Games


William Raspberry, addressing the First Amendment, tells us:
"There's nothing in common sense - and certainly nothing in the First Amendment - that requires government hostility to publicly expressed religion, which is where the requirement that government be 'secular' takes you," he says. "I think it's better to say 'temporal' rather than secular. Temporal means the here and now, without reference to the hereafter. Our government was designed to be temporal, but you have only to look at the words and actions of the Founders to understand that they had no interest in the sort of secularity the court now seeks to enforce."

But it's not just in impossibly arcane Supreme Court decisions that "secular" plays us false, says Hasson. "It gets us in needless trouble internationally as well. The Arabic word for secular is almehni, meaning godless. So when Muslim fundamentalists hear us talk about secular government, they think we mean, quite literally, a godless government. Temporal translates into another Arabic word entirely, dunyawi, or worldly.

Hasson is not just playing word games.
Well, yes. He is.

Take for example somebody who argued that the Elbonian word for "Godly" is "ignorant". While it is fair to respond that the Elbonians, a fictional ethnicity featured in Dilbert cartoons, are famous for their ability to get pretty much everything wrong, the better response would be to point out that if "ignorant" is the best word in the Elbonian language to describe the concept of Godliness, the Elbonians in fact have no word for Godliness. Further, as we are not applying the inaccurate Elbonian definition of Godliness within our nation - we use the English language, after all - the deficits of the Elbonian language have no relevance to our domestic debates.

If I were to add to this that the Elbonians translate the word "Cotton Candy" as "Worldly", you would probably find it ridiculous if I were to suggest that we call our government a "Cotton Candy government" in order to convey a more accurate meaning to the Elbonians. "But," you would assert, "Cotton candy in English means 'a candy made by spinning sugar that has been boiled to a high temperature'." And you would be right. While "temporal" is a closer match to "worldly" than is "cotton candy", it still carries a different meaning (particularly in its most common uses) than worldly.

This ultimately raises some questions for Mr. Hasson: What is the Arabic word for "worldly"? Because if it is something other than "dunyawi", which you say means "worldly", we're engaging in some pretty peculiar contortions. And if "worldly" (which you suggest to be a word which properly conveys the nature of our government to other cultures) translates to "dunyawi", why do you prefer the term "temporal" to the term "wordly"? Perhaps, to confuse the English language debate?

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