Monday, June 16, 2014

I Wonder How You Will React


  • showing a response to a stimulus. "pupils are reactive to light" 
  • acting in response to a situation rather than creating or controlling it.
    "a proactive rather than a reactive approach"  
  • having a tendency to react chemically."nitrogen dioxide is a highly reactive gas"
I hardly ever hear the word "reactive" any more.  People are using the word "reactionary" instead.  Yet they have different meanings, and we need to keep both.

A reactionary is a person who holds political viewpoints that favor a return to a previous state in a society.  If you live in the U,S. and you want to go back to a time when "women knew their place," you're a reactionary.  (Not a conservative: that would mean wanting to keep things from changing,  Going backwards is a change.)

Being reactive, on the other hand, is not political.  It's a character trait.  If you say things like "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" and "Don't borrow trouble," you're probably a reactive person. 

"Reactive" can also describe the way one responds to a changing situation.  Right now, the U.S. is responding to the crisis in Iraq in a reactive way.  In 2003, the U.S. took the initiative.  This should tell you that waiting to see is not always the worst policy, and intervention not always the best.

Using "reactionary" when you mean "reactive" confuses the issue.  Very progressive people can have knee-jerk responses to things.  Right-wingers can plan for years in advance.  We need to keep the words that let us say so.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Do You Know What I Mean?

Languages change.  If you need any evidence, sit down and read Shakespeare.  When was the last time you burst out with a good "Zounds" or "Alackaday"?  

Then there's all the cliche phrases, like "fight fire with fire," "too much of a good thing," and "wear your heart on your sleeve." 

The thing is, they weren't cliches when Shakespeare wrote them.  They were fresh baked, still warm from the oven. Billy the Bard may be the first one who ever said them. 

Languages change, and meanings change with them.  But as the way we write and speak evolves, do we ever lose shades of meaning?  Do some things become harder to say, perhaps harder to think?  What's your opinion, gentle reader?

Excited about prepositions

For most of my fifty-six years, when people were looking forward to an event or when they wanted to express enthusiasm about something that was already happening, they'd say "I'm excited about" the event."  When they wanted to share someone's joy, they'd say to that person, "I'm excited for you."  For example:

I'm excited for my son, who has been accepted at a very good college. He is excited about their theatre and computer departments.

In the past five years, I have seen more and more instances of "excited for" being used for events.  It seems to have spread geographically (from the midwestern U.S. to the coasts) and generationally (from Generation X and Millennials up to Boomers like me). 

It sounds strange to me, but it doesn't upset me.  I know what the other person is saying in all but the most rare of cases.  The words are doing their work.

You might say that the distinction is important because being excited for another person is a laudable emotion: it helps make friendships and social relationships stronger.  Being excited about an event is a personal taste, and reducing everything to personal tastes would be a great loss to us as individuals and as a society. 

But I don't really think that people are losing empathy for one another because they say "for" when I would say "about."  If social bonds are fraying, language is not the cutting edge of the problem.

Taking an interest in language

Here's an example that worries me more.  "Uninterested" is fading from the language, in favor of "disinterested."  They used to mean two different things, and the difference is still important and useful.

As Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl, explains:

An uninterested person is bored, unconcerned, or indifferent: a disinterested person is impartial, unbiased, or has no stake in the outcome.  If you're on trial, you want a disinterested judge.
In our contentious, litigious culture, being able to say "disinterested" and know that people will understand you seems like a major benefit.  You might say that we have other perfectly good ways to say "disinterested": for instance, "impartial, unbiased, or has no stake in the outcome"!  Yet it still seems useful to me to have one word that pulls all these strands of meaning together. 

Otherwise, people will think you mean "he can't be bothered" when what you really mean is "he can't be bribed."

Plus, language may change but texts remain as written.  I can see the day coming when "disinterested observer" may cause as much confusion and sniggering as "gay apparel" does now, because the meanings of the words have changed.

Where do you draw your line in the sand? What makes a traditional usage worth fighting to keep, and when should we "be like the times" (as Shakespeare's Richard III would say)?

An uninterested person is bored, unconcerned, or indifferent; a disinterested person is impartial, unbiased, or has no stake in the outcome. If you're on trial, you want a disinterested judge. - See more at:
An uninterested person is bored, unconcerned, or indifferent; a disinterested person is impartial, unbiased, or has no stake in the outcome. If you're on trial, you want a disinterested judge. - See more at:
An uninterested person is bored, unconcerned, or indifferent; a disinterested person is impartial, unbiased, or has no stake in the outcome. If you're on trial, you want a disinterested judge. - See more at:
An uninterested person is bored, unconcerned, or indifferent; a disinterested person is impartial, unbiased, or has no stake in the outcome. If you're on trial, you want a disinterested judge. - See more at:

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Kerry's (and the Boston Globe's) dumb definition of isolationism

It's really a shame when a major newspaper doesn't know the meaning of isolationism--and neither does the Secretary of State.

A May 20 editorial in the Boston Globe, "Kerry offers a wise warning on isolationism," quotes and praises the former Senator from Massachusetts. “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism in this decade,” he declared.

Never mind that the U.S. still has troops and advisers all over the world--where it isn't "intervening" by firing missiles over the border.  The more important point is the mistaken and pernicious idea that if we're not involved militarily, we're not paying attention.

It is not isolationist when ordinary citizens travel to other countries.

It is not isolationist when teachers from the U.S. meet with teachers from Russia, or city government officials from Pakistan visit municipal leaders in Massachusetts.

It is not isolationist when scientists from all over the world--the U.S., China, island nations in the Pacific--work together to slow down climate change and make its consequences less severe.

The U.S. can be highly involved in the world without ever firing a shot.  And it should be.

Friday, May 16, 2014

"What's My Child Doing Up There?" ( an introduction to bar/bat mitzvah)

There’s a lot of mystery around becoming bar or bat mitzvah, and there shouldn’t be.  In essence, it’s very simple.  When a Jewish boy or girl reaches age thirteen, he or she is eligible to lead parts of the service at his or her family’s synagogue.  So, he or she celebrates the occasion by…actually leading some parts of the service. 

Sounds pretty straightforward, right?  Yet, I have been tutoring Jewish children for bar and bat mitzvah off and on since 1982.  I have seen the parents of my students approach the bar or bat mitzvah feeling confused, and sometimes even overwhelmed.  These parents are no dummies.  They are not being neurotic for no reason whatever.  In the U.S., the way we live now, there are good reasons why you might not immediately understand what your child is doing for his bar mitzvah, or her bat mitzvah.

 Why the mystery?

Let’s start with language.  Very few Americans are fluent in Hebrew.  Depending on your synagogue or temple, what your child does for bar or bat mitzvah might be partly, mostly, or nearly all in Hebrew.  So, let alone understanding what your child is saying: how do you track your child’s progress as he or she studies for bar or bat mitzvah?  You want to be a good parent.  You want to be supportive.  But how?

 Even the terms the rabbi or tutor uses for the tasks your child will take on are usually in Hebrew.  “What’s an aliyah?  Is a parshah the same thing as a haftarah, or is it something different my child has to learn?  How come one set of relatives calls the skullcap worn in synagogue a yarmulke while the other set calls it a kipah?”  Whether you grew up Jewish, became Jewish later in life, or raised a Jewish child without any Jewish background of your own, chances are you need a guide to understand the vocabulary that surrounds bar or bat mitzvah studies.

Then, there’s the fact that preparing for bar or bat mitzvah is usually a multi-step process.  Again, depending on your Jewish community and its local customs, your child may be reading or singing some things from the prayer book, and chanting other things from the printed Bible or the Torah scroll.  Most likely, he or she will also be giving a short talk about the passage of the Bible read that day.   

To prepare for these tasks, you may be driving your child to meet with one tutor throughout the process--or a tutor and a rabbi--or a tutor, a cantor, a Hebrew school principal, and a rabbi.  You’ll need to find ways to talk with each of them, and make sure that they are all talking to one another.

The Saturday morning service itself, the usual time for celebrating bar or bat mitzvah, can be a challenge.  It’s going to be at least an hour long, maybe as much as three hours: again, partly, mostly, or nearly all in Hebrew, depending on local custom.  It will involve a set of rituals and protocols that are certainly not obvious.  “Should I invite my non-Jewish friends or relatives to the service?  How are they going to feel at home there?  How will I?”

Finally, there’s one huge distraction that makes it difficult for parents to look forward to the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony: planning the party.  Everybody likes a good party.  For some children, it’s the reason they started studying for bar or bat mitzvah in the first place!  But for unwary parents—especially parents going through it for the first time, with their eldest child—planning the party can take up all the time and attention you have. 

You might not be planning something as lavish as the party Peter Finch attends in the movie Sunday Bloody Sunday, or as obscenely ostentatious as the one Jeremy Piven plans in Keeping Up with the Steins.  In fact, I hope not!  Still, in the midst of scheduling a space, a caterer, and entertainment, designing and sending out invitations, and helping your child keep track of gifts, it might be hard for you, yourself, to keep tabs on the bar or bat mitzvah studies—and all too easy to arrive at shul that Saturday morning without a clue about what’s going on.  

“What’s my child doing up there?”  Wonder no more.  I am writing a book to give you the answers you need as you begin to think about your child’s bar or bat mitzvah.  There are other, excellent books that will help you think about the deeper meaning of this rite of passage.  I will mention some of them in the Appendices.  

 Writing this book, I have a different mission. You will soon hold in your hands a practical guide to bar and bat mitzvah for the perplexed parent.  With this book as your road map, you will be able to navigate the process from the first day of lessons to the last blessing of the Saturday morning service, with confidence.  It shouldn’t be a mystery—just a mitzvah!