Wednesday, January 20, 2010

reflections on biblical-style philology

Count me among those who were shocked (no pun intended) by the Chargers' loss to the NY Jets Sunday. I have been saying for a couple weeks that I thought San Diego was the best team in the NFL (though the Vikings looked pretty darn good, didn't they?!), and I expected them to bring the Vince Lombardi Trophy to southern California next month. If I was a gambling man, I'd put money on Indianapolis and Minnesota in the Super Bowl, with the Colts winning. But then again, if I was a gambling man I'd already be broke.

But in Monday's news coverage of the Jets' victory, I saw a headline flash up on the tv screen that read, "The Jets ground the Chargers," an obviously intentional if not very creative pun. But I have to admit, it took me a few minutes to get the pun's intent. First, I thought it would have been a more appropriate headline if the Chargers had won, so that "The Chargers ground the Jets." After all, Jets are grounded; they don't do the grounding. So when I tried to imagine a more appropriate pun, I asked which verb is more appropriate when the Chargers is the object. That's when I realized that I had misread the verb, ground. The headline, almost certainly, didn't use ground in the sense of "keep planes (or jets) out of the sky" but rather in the sense of "provide a path for electrical current to be dissipated into the Earth."

Given the different semantic domains in which the English verb ground occurs, the word's meaning in this context varies significantly depending on whether we infer the crucial context from the presence of "The Jets" in the immediate context or from the presence of "the Chargers." And nevermind that ground, in a football context, also means "to throw onto the field" (as in, "Sanchez grounded the ball with three seconds left on the clock."). Given the very many different things ground CAN mean (and we've only considered its meanings as a verb!), it's all the more amazing how quickly and effortlessly we intuit what it ought to mean in a particular context. As native English speakers, we identify the interpretive options available and discriminate between them with surprising ease; if not for my initial misinterpretation of the headline I would not have even realized the dynamics at play when I make sense of that simple headline. But that doesn't make those dynamics any less sophisticated.

We can only wonder how ridiculous so much of what qualifies as peer-reviewed, publishable biblical scholarship would strike the average first-century person as inane and absurd. I'm not maligning everyone else's scholarship and excusing my own; the problem I'm trying to raise is in some ways part of the essence of our discipline. But it should go some way toward tempering the rancor that sometimes accompanies biblical scholarship to realize that many of us have earned our PhDs trying to understand and explain phenomena that made sense intuitively to children and the uneducated masses.

1 comment:

Jack Weinbender said...

On a more techy-note, Google has run into the same problem with their search engine—though they have the advantage of actually being able to study the language as it is used by a massive sample, rather than only a few texts. Even something as simple as a synonym requires a database of meta-data—though it is something that even a 3 year-old can easily discern.

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