Vulgarians at the gate

“There is no greater love that can be displayed than for a person to lay down their life for others.” Is there any way to make that sentence worse?

The Washington Post has a heart-rending story about a “patriot detail” &#8212 the ceremony of loading the corpse of a combat casualty onto the plane that will take it back to the U.S. for burial.

Since thinking about combat deaths in Iraq makes me feel guilty, I’d rather get angry about something that’s demonstrably not my fault: the dumbing-down of religious language.

One of the most beautiful sentences in the Christian scripture is John 15:13:

Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

Now contrast what the Chaplain said over Airman Chavis’s body:

There is no greater love that can be displayed than for a person to lay down their life for others.

My argument is not for holding the language fixed; modernizing “hath” to “has” sounds like an improvement to my ear. And the translation quoted above isn’t precisely the King James version; in this one instance, the KJV translators slipped (saying “a man’s life” rather than the shorter and better-cadenced “his life”) and have been corrected by the folk process. But the poetic word order, the use of the concrete “man” and “his” for the abstract “person” and the ungrammatical “their,” and the active “hath” for for the passive “can be displayed” give the familiar version infinitely more punch than the dumbed-down and gender-neutralized version, which sounds as if it might have been copied from a software instruction manual.

Since English seems destined to be the world language, its defense against the barbarians and the vulgarians ought to concern us all. Not as much as recapturing our country from the coalition of crooks, fools, and lunatics now running it, but enough to engage at least part of our attention.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

7 thoughts on “Vulgarians at the gate”

  1. I rather like the Oliver St. John Gogarty variant that comes down to us via Joyce's Ulysses:
    'Greater love hath no man than this, to lay down his wife for another.'

  2. IN RE: the ungrammatical "their,"
    Their has been used as an indefinite singular possessive pronoun for over 500 years.
    The online OED has examples (entry c3) starting in 1420, and ending with a line from Shaw's Candida in 1898: "It's enough to drive anyone out of their senses."

  3. This is prolly the result of concern over chauvinism in the Bible. It's odd the supposably educated people can be so sloppy. It literally makes my head explode with the annoyingness of it all.

  4. Orwell wrote about such people. These are guys who'd render:
    "I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."
    "Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."

  5. Why should you feel guilty thinking about combat deaths in Iraq? Fucking Bush should feel guilty. Fucking Cheney should feel guilty. Fucking Rumsfeld should feel guilty. They're the motherfuckers who sent our people to die for lies.

  6. I do not understand the chauvinism of the original statement. Do people take it to mean that men are the only ones willing to lay down their lives for a friend, simply because the passage says what a man would do, but makes no mention of what a woman would do? Is this some sort of denial of intent through exclusion of mention?
    I have to agree with Dr. K on this one. The beauty of the statement lies in its simplicity and it's word order. You can change man -> woman and his -> her when reading it over a female soldier and it would maintain it's charm.

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