Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Chris Heard on Pretentious Words

Kudos to Chris Heard for taking after pretentious-sounding words. He objects to scholars' use of the words "pericope" and "praxis":
"Why do biblical scholars use, and teach their students to use, the word 'pericope' when the simple English word 'passage' means the same thing and will do just fine? I can discern no valuable semantic reason for using 'pericope' instead of 'passage.' Ditto for using 'praxis' instead of 'practice.'"
In comments on Chris' blog, I responded as follows:
"The problem isn't confined to academia. Take the word 'utilize': 'use' can be substituted 99.99% of the time for this pretentious-sounding word. But some people say (or write) 'utilize' all the time, instead of the rare .01% cases where it's necessary.

"I suspect that 'pericope' and 'praxis' are analogous to 'utilize'. They work better (or with more precision) than 'passage' and 'practice' only .01% of the time, but people use them 85% of the time anyway, because it makes them sound smart and scholarly."
For instance, "utilize" works better than "use" when one is trying to convey profitable or practical use for something. The term "praxis" (which I admittedly loathe) is supposed to carry an emphasis of theory in conjunction with practice. As for "pericope", I've no idea how this improves on "passage", but it probably does in a way that warrants its usage once in a blue moon.

Pretentious-sounding words have reasons for existing, but perhaps they wouldn't sound so pretentious if they were used as judiciously and rarely as warranted.

UPDATE: Thanks to commenters below for distinctions between "pericope" and "passage". On Chris' blog, Jack Poirier comments further as follows: "I use 'pericope' when I mean... a unit delimited by a narrative change of some sort, and I use 'passage' when I mean... just the words in question, and, as far as I can tell, that's what everyone else does. I don't even think the two terms (at least as commonly used) are close to being synonyms." So I guess "pericope" is a bit more useful than either "utilize" or "praxis".


Anonymous J. J. Ramsey said...

I can't speak for Heard, but when I've seen "pericope" used, it's been applied to a section that can be treated as more or less self-contained. A pericope may be a parable, or Mark's "little apocalypse," but not just a single sentence. The word "passage" is certainly more general than that, and can refer to anything from several paragraphs to a single verse.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is pretentious to one person is commonplace to another... I see nothing wrong with pericope and actually prefer it to passage. I agree with J.J. Ramsey that passage is much more general while pericope is generally a self-contained unit of some kind, e.g. as used in lectionary readings.

Anonymous Jack Poirier said...

I agree with J.J. Ramsey and Ken: as I use the terms, "pericope" and "passage" are not at all synonymous.

Anonymous Ralph Hitchens said...

This really got to me at one of the first PTA meetings I attended, back in the mid-90s. Heard all these presentations from staff using the term "rubric." I finally asked what they meant, and was told that it basically means an "outline." OK, I said, why don't you use that word, which everyone understands? No meaningful response. Subcultures zealously seek out a proprietary language, I believe. When I was a young Air Force pilot we tossed around all kinds of funky terminology in the presence of the non-rated, to set us apart, you see. Hope I've grown up a bit since those days.

Blogger Rainsborough said...

Yes, pretension is to be avoided, and incorrect, ignorant usage.

But so also is imprecision to be avoided, and scorn for the precise word because not in the scorner's own vocabulary.

Even as a generic word, "pericope" isn't just pretentious for "passage." By etymology and evolution, it connotes "cutting." extracting from a larger whole, a process of selection.

Then, by convention in some circles it came to refer to passages from scripture that stood by themselves enough to be used as readings.

And then again by extension among scholars "pericipe" came to refer, as ramsey remarks, to a self-contained unit. This an essential element of the meaning of the word in what nowadays is probably it's most common usage that the American Heritage picks up and Webster's Collegiate fails to. The suggestion is that the passage came to the evangelist (is that the right word? I mean "author of a gospel") as a separate piece of oral tradition or perhaps as a piece of a strung together (Q like) written compilation of sayings. It may very well be, then, that "pericope" suggests that the words in question aren't a passage at all--don't come to us from a written source of any sort, or come to us not as a "passage" drawn from a longer, connected text, but as a separate piece of a necklace-like collection of separate sayings.

The general point (don't (mis)use ten-dollar words when one-buck words do as well or better) is well taken, but the word under indictment is not useless jargon, it has a precise and delimited referent, and when thrown to students of the New Testament they should catch it and not throw it back.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really people... these threads only prove my point... what is pretentious to one person is not to another? I mean Ralph I know more than a few people who would consider "proprietary language" pretentious for "jargon" or even more simply "slang", "code words", or "their own language". The deeper concern, I think, is incorrect or ignorant usage... when somebody tries to be high-sounding by using more "difficult" words but then actually applies them incorrectly of their real meaning or nuance... otherwise people with sophisticated vocabularies should be admired and we should aspire to their level rather than protest that they come down to ours!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny, because imho, there is no word sillier and more elitist-sounding than pretentious. Sure, as has been said, it has its place and sure, some things and people could rightly be described as such. But what I can't stand is when people slap the word on anything that's even remotely unfamiliar to them, or just not what they'd personally prefer. It's so hypocritical, it's laughable.


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