The Promise and Peril of Words

In translations, abbreviations, notations, and acronyms



The celebrated Dorothy Parker, on hearing the phone ring, liked to ask, “What fresh hell is this?” Of late we might say the same on reading the morning paper or catching the evening news. But not on this blog post, not today.

Let’s consider, instead, the promise and peril of words. First comes the promise of translating words, among them the wisest, from one language to another. Hats off to St. Jerome and his Vulgate, bringing Hebrew and Greek to the Latin speaking West. His heirs continue to bring the Scriptures to a polyglot world.

Yet there is peril as well. Tradutorre, traditore! The translator is a traitor! A translator can’t please everyone and just might please no one. Miguel Cervantes observes in his Don Quixote, “Translating from one language into another…is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side out.” (Translation not mine.)

The philosopher W.V. Quine puzzled over translations “from scratch,” that is, those that could not draw on an intermediate language. How, for example, are we to translate the novel “gavagai” uttered in the presence of a rabbit. Would “unseparated rabbit parts” be preferable to  “rabbit”?

Or what are we to say of abbreviations? “Xmas,” I think, is OK, given the symbolism of “X.” But “Ms.”? Sounds like “Mizz,” right? So it rhymes with “his”? Careful. At any rate, watch your political step.

Speaking of politics, the political thinker David Walsh writes about the “emergence of a minimal order within the abbreviations that became the liberal democratic form.” The suggestion, it seems, is that there’s a lot more to liberalism than liberals can articulate, and that these abbreviations are stand-ins for a rich tradition. Well, maybe. But must they be so coy?

In the crowded neighborhood of translations and abbreviations, we’ll also find notations. As a chess-nut, I depend on chess notation. The scholarly bishop Ruy Lopez, in his classic The Art of the Game of Chess (1561) introduced his first opening without one. “White will begin, moving the king’s pawn to the extent it moves. If Black were to play the king’s pawn to the extent that it moves, White would move the queen’s bishop’s pawn one square.” Then what? “If Black were to play the king’s pawn to the extent that it moves, White would move the queen’s bishop’s pawn one square.” Today’s algebraic notation? 1.e4…e5. 2.c3. Even so, people disagree about the notation for knights (or, as some say, horses).

When numbers and letters come into play (chess or otherwise), Roman numerals, which abbreviate, rely on both. Welcome to MMXXI! That’s 2021, to which I would add A.D., since C.E. only a secularizes the coming of the God-Man who split time in two. Classical Rome, in any case, gets a pass. It would be tough to chisel Arabic numerals.

Next up in the neighborhood is the ubiquitous acronym. Think CEO, CFO, and IOOF (Independent Order of Oddfellows). I’m stuck with one that I don’t much like: ASP (American Solidarity Party), not to be confused with the asp allegedly involved in Cleopatra’s demise.

On an ecclesial note, there’s a pair of acronyms that need rethinking: RCIA, not to be confused with RCA (the electronics corporation), and CCD, not to be confused with CCD (whether the disease or the health care document). Preparation for the sacraments and the teaching of the faith deserve better. They prepare us, pace Dorothy Parker, for the freshness of life and its ties with heaven!

Remember the lines of Hopkins:

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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