Damnable Terminology

I now genuinely regret my use of the term ‘violence’ in my recent post. My intention was to be completely candid and point out a phenomenon of our collective experience. As I often tell my students, however, the thoughts, intentions and arguments that might genuinely be running through our heads when we compose something does not change the meaning of the end product. At the end of the day, using the term ‘violence’ – however I might have meant the term – completely distracted (and detracted) from the message and goal of the post. Enough readers found it to be mere fire-breathing partisan bombast that I can’t deny its bombastic nature, and quite possibly my own skewed vision on the topic. At the least, in this context, ‘violence’ is not the term I thought it would be. This is true regardless of how much I might want to jump up and down clarifying.[1] Authorial intent is at best a footnote to the actual meaning of what is written. Language is public, not private.

This is a fairly universal experience, and my own recent blunders have led me to reflect not only on my own idiosyncratic and unfortunate vocabulary, but also on the words and phrases that are common LDS parlance. Our terminology sometimes has awkward or unfortunate results as our different language groups mix. We end up speaking and hearing very different messages. There are of course lots of different reasons for linguistic befuddlement when speaking Mormonese – unique terms, idiosyncratic usage, connotations, ambiguity, etc.

Here are some general categories where I think terminological run-ins are common, given the assumptions and backgrounds of the two groups interacting:

Members vs. non-members: We’ve all watched this dance in the media over the last few years. In this category, even the terms ‘member’ and ‘non-member’ are themselves prime examples, contributing to our exclusivist reputation. And then there are the more conventional examples: Mormon, ward, stake, apostle, obedience, D&C.

Missionaries vs. investigators: This is of course just a sub-category of members vs. non-members, but deserves it’s own spotlight. Like the military, missions are a breeding ground of slang. They’re also a jumble of cultures, languages, and life scenarios. But the stock missionary terms themselves are often a clash of meanings: Elder, progressing, testimony, know, revelation.

Active vs. less-active: This is another category where the very terms we use to identify the groups are loaded. Additionally, there are difficult terms like: apostate, faithful, committed, Church.

Mormon vs. Christian: We can probably include most theological terms here, but then there are the big ones: Jesus Christ, God the Father, Holy Spirit, “oneness,” Christian, grace, work, (“great”) apostasy, heaven, hell, eternal life, revelation, prophet, etc., etc., etc.

Mormon vs. Jew: Similar to other religious groups through history, we’ve taken up their terms in new ways (or as we sometimes insist, the “old ways”): Jew, gentile, Israel, Ephraim, temple, Melchizedek, Messiah, (and to which tribe do we assign Arabs? Oy vey! Not to mention the dicey nature ‘baptisms for the dead’).

Convert vs. 7th Generationer: Any of the above might play into this one, since converts come from all walks of life. But particularly relevant are all of those new terms that we generally only use amongst ourselves: all titles (President, Sister, Brother, etc.), Quorum, patriarchal blessings, exaltation, Areas, pioneer stock

Utah vs. Non-Utah Mormon or U.S. vs. “International” Member: Again, these are loaded terms themselves. As are terms like: Zion, mission field, promised land, New Jerusalem, religious freedom, Founding Fathers, Sabbath breaking/keeping, Pioneer Day.

And of course, Men vs. Women: Coming full circle, gender-loaded terms in the Church are currently a morass. This mess doesn’t actually break-down along the lines of “men vs. women” or even “feminist vs. traditionalist” but rather we have all kinds of conflict and befuddlement on a convoluted 3-dimensional spectrum (as our comment sections often reveal). Scripture, church publications, talks and blog posts are common spaces where we find tug-o-wars over these terms: man, mankind, he (boy, these ones really impact our experience of reading sacred texts and singing hymns, don’t they?), patriarchy, preside, head of household, motherhood, separate but equal, nurture, provide, stay-at-home, priesthood, privilege, and perhaps the biggest of all: God.

Other situations, categories, or particularly loaded terms that we use?


[1] Alright, I won’t jump up and down, but I’ll at least say this: all of us who sincerely believe in and love our Church, who think it’s more than simply an institution, and all of us whose religious experience takes place to a large degree within the framework that the Church provides, are collectively, unavoidably and deeply affected by the way in which the Church organizes our genders. This is true however easy it might be to “exit” the church (even more, it de facto means that – for those of us who do believe or even who once believed – it is never easy to simply exit; rather it is always a tremendous alteration of identity). Consequently, the impact of any systematic limitation is greatly magnified. Again, I think we are all affected by this structural reality with regard to women in the Church (and to be clear, I do not think that the difficulties I’m alluding to are caused by merely separate gender roles), and I suspect that most of us have loved ones for whom the present situation has resulted in debilitating wounds. If I were to rewrite the bottom third of the post, I would rephrase things along these lines.

7 comments for “Damnable Terminology

  1. I think “first generation” is the preferred term for what some would call “convert.” It’s been used a few times in general conference that I’ve noticed, and seems much less loaded in several ways.

    Some years ago I was interviewing an AA70 for a local church history project. His relatives came west in a handcart company back in the day. I asked him when he was converted. He laughed with delight and said that nobody had asked him before. And then he told me a great story about an incident on his mission when he became a convert.

  2. James, I’m glad to see that you can be taught! You wrote the Pontiac Aztec of posts. It wasn’t as bad as it looked, but it looked bad.

    Anyhow, I’ve often shaken my head at the number of acronyms we Mormons use: CTR, FHE, MIA, RM, MP, GA, EQ, EQP, RS, RSP, HP, HPGL, BoM, D&C, PoGP, AoF, etc. A talk in Sacrament meeting can sound like a coded military message, if care is not exercised. I don’t think we’re really too lazy to spell things out, or that they save sufficient time and effort to justify their use. My guess is that these can serve as a Shibboleth for those seeking well-defined community boundaries. I suppose some find their use comforting. I’d like to experiment tomorrow and not use a single acronym at church and see if I feel “outside” for doing so.

  3. True church vs. … [insert non-Mormon religion of your choice].

    Apart from the obvious “us vs. theml” connotations embedded in the use of the phrase “the only true church,” it displays intellectual laziness and imprecision when expressed in a testimony.

    If someone were to say to you “I believe the International Red Cross is true,” you would look at them quizzically and ask: “What do you mean?” I have the same reaction when I hear members say the same thing about the church during a testimony meeting. The statement is vacuous and tells me little or nothing about what the person actually believes and suggests that, perhaps, they haven’t given much thought to the question themselves. In addition, it implies that they have closed their minds to the possibility that God may have revealed certain truths to individuals of other faiths, because of their righteousness, that we have not yet discovered.

  4. I hate PC rules of language. Use whatever language you want, and don’t give in to demands to use other terms or drop some altogether. Words mean whatever anyone wants them to mean as they ate not the things themselves. It isn’t about sensitivity to insist a particular uasage, but power over others.

  5. Jettboy – There’s a distasteful way to understand PC (a way of trying to sweep under the carpet real issues). Control of vocabulary – like control of narratives – is also a very real issue. But my post here really has nothing to do with either.

    If you’re a missionary trying to convince your potential convert that they should believe in prophets and particularly Joseph Smith, and they’re nodding their head in complete agreement, but then absolutely refuse to consider any significant changes to their life (e.g., joining the church) then you’re forced to consider what’s really going on. Maybe they’re just hypocritical or being dishonest with you. Far more likely in my experience, they simply don’t think ‘prophet’ means what we think ‘prophet’ means. This has nothing to do with either PC or power – it has to do with communication issues when at least partially distinct language communities interact. The same holds true in politically charged situations. There are some groups for whom words like ‘feminist’ or ‘constitutionalist’ are so irredeemably corrupt that you won’t be able to have a productive conversation unless you can learn how better to speak with them.

    There is also the issue of simple accuracy. Just as being “PC” can be a way of avoiding what’s actually at stake, so too dismissively and derisively crying “That’s just being PC!” is often a way of refusing to see what’s really going on.

  6. Some of my favorite frequently misunderstood words are these.

    Perfect, rational, immoral, insensitive, doctrine, spiritual, secular, illogical, fallen.

    It is one of these greatest mysteries how words are defined because dictionaries are circular and we never really know for sure if we agree about them.

    Maybe Babel is there even when we think its not.

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