In my historical linguistics class, we talk about the influence of culture on circumlocutions, the strategy of saying something indirect so as not to offend.  One of the classic examples is that of the refusal of some Victorians to say the word “bull” because it referred to that most virile of creatures.  One circumlocution was “gentleman cow.” 

The same linguistic impulse of avoiding offense was extended even to furniture making, it seems, where some Victorians on our side of the Atlantic developed little skirts to attach to chairs to hide the upper parts of the chair legs, lest someone become tantalized by the carved shapes.  While this fashion artifact has come to some argument, there is ample attestation that the word “leg” was verboten, while the word “limb” was acceptable.  This quirky anxiety toward things carnal led to the rather infamous title of a BBC comedy in the 70’s, “No Sex Please, We’re British,” which has become a snowclone for loads of other cultural riffs.

The new anxiety over religion in the U.S. has reached a number of points of absurdity thanks to the new Victorianism of the secularists, who are afraid of the temptations that might strike the unwitting.  This is, at least partially, behind the rationale of the judge in New York who refused to allow a couple to change their surname  to “ChristIsLord,” because folks might be offended.  Worse yet, some persons might accidentally utter their name and find themselves among the redeemed; I am fairly certain that the afterlife will not be littered with miserable, unsuspecting folks who accidentally uttered such a phrase as mere appellation.

More disturbing, however, is LSU’s scrubbing of photos that included small crosses.   The editors, apparently, did not want to offend people by mixing sports and religion.  This is dumbfounding, of course, since LSU plays in the SEC and SEC football is easily the most followed sabbatarian religion of the American South.    Then again, big-time higher education has used Photoshop before in ways that reflect other anxieties in academe.

Trying to rid our culture of all references to religion out of deference to the secularists would fulfill the wildest fantasies of Orwellian NewSpeak I suppose, but it would be hopelessly invasive.  I am mindful of one of my graduate school professors, a Northerner who sniffed at all things religious in my home state of Mississippi.  Noting the presence of the town of Philadelphia in Neshoba County, he once asked me with a perfectly genuine curiosity about when and for what purpose Greek immigrants had arrived in Neshoba County.  I replied, dumbfounded, that the state was settled by Christians, not Greeks, and that he might wish to consult a New Testament to answer his own question. Scrubbing the map of all references to religion would leave us with an impoverished map indeed, but it would be the same sort of cultural cleansing that would be unthinkable for place names in Native American tongues.

I continue to be amazed to find that the so-called defenders of artistic and ideological transgressions are so onion-skinned when it comes to matters of faith.  Perhaps they are afraid that they cannot stand up to truth.  Or light.

Articles by Gene Fant

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