Monday Moanin’

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A great day: The Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas.

As a non-Catholic, I became intrigued with St. Thomas through Chesterton’s The Dumb Ox, and became an admirer when I read Josef Pieper’s Guide to Thomas Aquinas. A Lutheran with no inclination to become Catholic, I remember I was stunned and even offended when I read that Martin Luther called Aquinas a “chatterbox.” I understood Luther’s dislike of philosophy, but an ad hominem directed at STA? From someone blessed with Luther’s ample intellectual gifts? It unsettled me. Whether it played a role in my eventual conversion, I’ll never know.

Of all the Aquinas books I’ve read, I think I’d recommend this one the most: The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas. Deep and practical philosophy distilled into hundreds of bite-size passages. Great for those spare three minute periods we find during the day.
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When you hear “chaperone,” what do you think?

The question became important to me over the weekend. I had volunteered to chaperone a high school trip to Steubenville, Ohio this coming summer. It turns out they probably neither need me nor have room for me, but when I was talking to the trip coordinator, I was taken back. He described the weekend for me: “When we get there, you’ll have an initiation session. It’ll talk about what the weekend is about, how to deal with the children’s experiences, and things like that. Later on, you’ll be the group leader of a small group session. Then later . . . “.

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Initiation session? About what? How to prevent kids from sneaking out of their rooms at night? Group leader? I wanted to be a chaperone, which, if chaperones at my high school dances in the 1980s are any indicator, means standing in the shadows, chatting with other adults, surreptitiously drinking beer, and in general providing a presence that says, “If you get out of line, you will be dealt with.”

But my wife tells me my views are hopelessly Websterian. “That’s not what chaperoning is any more. As a chaperone, you’re expected to participate in the activities.”

I’m a bit confused. If I “chaperone” a high school dance, am I supposed to shake it with the kids? I’m willing to whip out the moon dance and MC Hammer sprinkler moves, but in general, I’d think that’s not what a chaperone does. But apparently I’m wrong.
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Related cogitation:

When it comes to language wars between the “prescriptivists” and the “descriptivists”, I side more with the prescriptivists, though the descriptivists have good arguments (especially the argument that the prescriptivists straight-jacket language’s creativity and change), and I enjoy a good enallage. The biggest reason I side with the prescriptivists is because language breaks down without rules. A hick might use “them” as an adjective (“He didn’t let you look at them cars?”), and we still understand what he means. The grammatical breach is no big deal and, though it grates on me, the descriptivists are correct to assert, “You understood his meaning. That’s the important thing.”

But if you combine enough grammatical breaches in a sentence, the meaning starts to get blurred. “You don’t got no look for the wheels?” The double negative equals a positive and makes the sentence a bit confusing (descriptivists say that’s a math rule, not a language rule, but they’re flat-out wrong). And then “look” is apparently used as a noun, which can be appropriate but in this sentence doesn’t make sense, then there’s an inapt preposition (“for”), and then “wheels.” Is that a slang reference to a car or is the speaker curious about the tires? The sentence is confusing and not easily decipherable by the ordinary listener.

Hence the need for rules. Rules have other advantages. They, for instance, provide a means of quickly, if imperfectly, separating the educated/intelligent from the ignorant/dull, which is a handy thing in a modern world that requires you to make quick decisions. It’s also fun to have rules so they can be bent, played with, and occasionally broken for effect. Without rules, colorful sayings like “We was robbed!” would lose much of their flavor.

Believe it or not, this all relates to my “chaperone” issue. My wife was puzzled that I was annoyed about the chaperone’s role. Her point, “Everyone who’s been involved in youth retreats for the past ten years knows chaperones do a lot more than just watch and ensure proper behavior.” It’s a good descriptivist argument. My prescriptivist response: That’s not what “chaperone” means, and if a person is going to use the term improperly, it’s incumbent on the speaker to make sure everyone truly understands what he means. When the hick says “them cars,” everyone knows what he means. If someone is going to use the word “chaperone” incorrectly, the speaker better make sure the meaning is as clear as “them cars,” which in this case, it wasn’t.”

Anyway, I find this type of language issue interesting, and my apologies if you’re plunging a sword into your bowels out of boredom. If I were a rich man, I wouldn’t sit at the eastern wall with Tevye several hours a day reading holy books (though I like to think I’d spend at least a few hours at the sanctuary), but I would sit around all day reading books about language, the philosophy of language, as well as other nerd books.

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