It is a good idea to not use religious phrases like this in your newsletters:

The activities that took place inside and outside of the classroom last week were a wonderful example of how blessed I am to serve as the principal here at ____.

We want you to be qualified. Your being blessed or not is a matter to be addressed between you and your minister, or in your prayers at night, or elsewhere.

Comments

  1. #1 Jason Thibeault
    November 9, 2009

    It seems to me the word “blessed” has come to be synonymous with “lucky” or “fortunate”. The fact that it has religious provenance may well be lost on some people. However, I’ve universally heard it only from people that are religious to begin with.

  2. #2 marilove
    November 9, 2009

    Yeah, I’m with Jason, but I’ve heard it from the non-religious, too, generally young people and friends my age (late 20s/early 30s) who didn’t necessarily grow up in a super-religious household but had parents who believed.

  3. #3 José
    November 9, 2009

    Also avoid “Hail Satan”.

  4. #4 becca
    November 9, 2009

    Would it have been better if he’d said “lucky” or “fortunate”? Afterall, luck is as imaginary as sacred sky fairies, as is fortune-as-in-fortune-cookies (fortune as in scrooge mcduck style swimming in gold coins exists… I’m not actually sure whether ‘fortunate’ is more closely related conceptually to one or the other).
    I think you are fighting a loosing battle in this one. An attitude of thankfulness, in addition to being good for one’s sense of wellbeing, is also a sign that the principal isn’t excessively conceited. The belief that every bit of good stuff that comes into one’s live is the direct result of one’s hard work/virtue/effort is as superstitious and false as anything else. Plus, it frequently makes you an ass.
    I consider myself blessed without a specific entity around to do the blessing.

  5. #5 Stacy
    November 9, 2009

    What about when their signature includes “God Bless”?

    http://i.imgur.com/uFw2a.jpg

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    November 9, 2009

    Becca, there is a meaningful qualitative difference between “lucky/fortunate” and “blessed” that matters to atheists and agnostics who are diligent about religiosity being taken for graded in the discourse trappings, teachings, etc. in public schools in the US.

    I think you are fighting a loosing battle in this one.

    No, I am not. I wrote a polite note to the principal, she agreed with me, and said she would avoid using such terminology in the future.

    I’m just learning about this principal, but so far I’ve been favorably impressed, and this is one of those moments.

    Oh, and as far as I know, randomness is real, so “lucky” as a reference to that sort of thing would be not the same as “My fairy guide did it.”

  7. #7 Jason Thibeault
    November 9, 2009

    When I’m playing a video game with any random elements, I do not pray to the random number generator for favorable results. Nor, I think, do gamblers pray to the dice to roll what they want, though they might earnestly say “come on 7!”. There’s a whole other slew of rituals involved with gambling that do not involve deities per se, but that betray the same mental fallacies that lead us into religiosity.

    Meanwhile, there are events that can be considered quasi-random, but true randomness is probably not possible. When you seed a random number generator on a computer, you’re giving it an initial value for its generation, and the formulae that are used to generate the random numbers will give you the same sequence of numbers in the same order when given the same seed. Likewise, when you throw a pair of dice, if you were somehow able to know everything about how they were oriented in your hand, the velocity and direction of their throw, their exact shape and weight, the air friction, and how they’ll react against each other and the table, you might be able to pre-calculate exactly where they’ll land. But there are so many variables at play that such pre-calculation is so improbable as to be impossible, and thus the results are as unpredictable to us as true randomness.

    The thing is, “blessed” DOES have a qualitatively different meaning from randomness. It means a deity has ordained it to be so. Lucky and fortunate indicate there was some element of chance to the event that came out in your favour. Whether that element of chance was truly the case (as in the case of a person being hired for their qualifications), is a matter of debate. And if there was no element of chance, and it was entirely a cause-effect relationship, then proclaiming any amount of chance is a bit of false (or perhaps sincere) humility. An endearing quality, but not a totally rational one.

  8. #8 Grant
    November 9, 2009

    I suspect it depends on your community.

    Where I am—generally speaking—it’s long lost it’s religious connotations, e.g. “our trip was blessed with good weather” is a little fusty, but doesn’t have a religious meaning to most people.

    FWIW, I find a point of difference is in how it’s said. Said as two distinct sounds, bless-ed, it carries a religious meaning on it’s own, but run as one, blessed, it needs the context to carry a religious meaning (or not).

  9. #9 RBH
    November 9, 2009

    While the problem may not be ubiquitous, it happens more than one might think. A former assistant principal at the middle school where John Freshwater taught thanked a counselor (in writing) “…for ministering to MVMS students.” In that particular case I think the administrator really meant “ministering.”

  10. #10 Elizabeth
    November 9, 2009

    Grant: Bles-ed is an adjective, blessed is a verb. Both are religious.

  11. #11 becca
    November 9, 2009

    I’m really trying to see it from your perspective, Greg. I understand that ‘blessed’ has religious connotations. I understand you don’t want any phrases that might imply someone has a religious perspective used in public schools. But the connotations for *that* phrase, to *me* are so unequivocally positive, that I’m having trouble.

    Look, I’m a feminist. Should I send a complaint note if my public school principal says “in this seminal paper…”?

    As far as the substitution of “lucky” or “fortunate”- the notion that some people are actually “lucky”- as in, they can rely on getting favorable results from (seemingly) random processes (i.e. that they can depend on getting that 7) is total fiction*. If the objection to ‘blessed’ stemmed entirely from the notion that it’s not true that one can be blessed, then it would be equally true that one cannot be fortunate.

    *(Technically, this depends on whether you are saying someone is lucky, or someone has been lucky; that is, you can’t say an individual will get the good die rolls, although you can say an individual has gotten good die rolls)

    In a sense, it is entirely illogical to express appreciation for the positive things in one’s life that are not directly attributable to some other human (how can you thank someone/something that isn’t there, be it god or lady luck?). But feeling or expressing such appreciation is not a bad thing. I’m not arguing we commend generalized gratitude or humility because they are rational, but because gratitude and a proportionate sense of humility are beneficial traits.

  12. #12 Jay
    November 9, 2009

    It seems that the principal was really saying “The teachers and students in this school have been doing a great job, and therefore I have a sense of pride and fulfillment from being associated with them.” Words such as honored or privileged would also have conveyed that intent quite well, and made explicit the importance of the efforts of the students and staff within the school.

    The word blessed, in my mind, will always have a religions connotation to it, and phrases such as …how blessed I am… always seem arrogant to me.

  13. #13 Shawn Smith
    November 9, 2009

    <pedant>Elizabeth: in the sentence “I am blessed to live in a safe house,” (one syllable in “blessed”) it is an adjective, describing the “I.” Much the same way “cook” can be both a verb and a noun, “blessed” (one syllable) can be both a verb and an adjective.</pedant>

  14. #14 Stephanie Z
    November 9, 2009

    Becca, the big deal is that “blessed” is the adjective form of a transitive verb (one that requires both a subject and an object). As such, agency is implicit in the word. Now, yes, one may consider themselves to be blessed by fortune or fate, but those are almost always specified in the communication, because the default is to be blessed by a deity. Why mess with that when better options, like Jay’s, are available?

    I think you’ve answered your own objections to “lucky” pretty well. It can be simply the recognition that one’s path has led one through the tail end of a bunch of distributions.

  15. #15 Greg Laden
    November 9, 2009

    Websters:

    Main Entry: bless·ed
    Pronunciation: \ˈble-səd\
    Variant(s): also blest \ˈblest\
    Function: adjective
    Date: before 12th century

    1 a : held in reverence : venerated <the blessed saints> b : honored in worship : hallowed <the blessed Trinity> c : beatific <a blessed visitation>
    2 : of or enjoying happiness; specifically : enjoying the bliss of heaven —used as a title for a beatified person
    3 : bringing pleasure, contentment, or good fortune
    4 —used as an intensive <never had one blessed minute of instruction — Charles Scribner Jr.>

    A reasonable interpretation of The US Constitution first amendment Establishment clause:

    “No, don’t use that word in public school documents”

    Becca:

    I don’t interpret the word that way so I’m not offended when I hear it.

    Everyone else:

    Good for you. And you are certainly not one to stand in solidarity with your sisters and brothers, so please stop calling yourself a feminist. (Seminal indeed.)

  16. #16 katydid13
    November 9, 2009

    Would you like to take on federal employees who end their outgoing voicemail messages with “have a blessed day?” It is absurdly unprofessional to me.

    I’ve never raised it because I’m sure it would open a nasty mess of race and class differences and I’m chicken. Relationships between young, white professional women and older, African-American women in administrative jobs are already not great.

  17. #17 Jay
    November 9, 2009

    I’ve seen a number of instances in my (federal) workplace where employees have broadcast e-mailed “inspirational” photos with Bible verses included, or otherwise ignored rules on church/state separation.

    It becomes obvious fairly quickly that many people interpret it as any church except my church/state separation.

    I have a very strong suspicion that those selfsame people would be among the first to complain if someone sent out an email containing verses from the Qu’ran.

  18. #18 Theo Bromine
    November 9, 2009

    In my experience, “I’m blessed to have…” is what committed fundagelical Christians say in place of the more secular colloquial “I’m lucky to have”, because it would be wrong to attribute anything to either luck, which is of the devil, or random chance (which does not exist since God has his finger on all the interactions between all the particles in the universe).

    Interestingly, both “blessed” and “lucky” would attribute the situation to either an outside agent (God, fortune, or even random chance), whereas Jay’s suggestion of using “grateful” or “privileged” does a far better job of acknowledging the contributions and efforts of the students in question.

    (As for “seminal”, I always thought that it denotes that something is “seed-like”, not “semen-like”, though of course the etymological inheritance is shared. (So perhaps I am not really a feminist – an accusation I have met before and will no doubt meet again.))

  19. #19 becca
    November 9, 2009

    Jay- to me, it depends on how both how obviously religious the verse is, and, if I’m honest, how much I agree with the sentiment. If someone signed an email:
    “Ephesians 5:22-33
    Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” I’d consider them grossly unprofessional (as well as batshit crazy), and it would annoy the heck out of me.
    On the other hand, if someone signed an email:
    “A kindhearted woman gains respect, but ruthless men gain only wealth.” I wouldn’t have recognized it as a verse, and I would probably have just smiled and shrugged.
    I don’t particularly think declaring all remotely biblical phrases is useful (have you ever said “Fight the good fight”? Or what about “At his wits end”? I never even knew they were bible verses till I started writing this comment)

    Theo Bromine- I chose that example 1) because I have heard it argued in good faith before and 2) because it’s another good word where the *primary* dictionary definition has one association that less-used definitions do not; yet the less-used definition is how I think of the word 90%+ of the time.

    (also, pedantically, ‘grateful’ does not work as a direct substitution- you’d have to write “these are examples of why I am so grateful” not examples of “how grateful I am”)

    Stephanie- I understand the grammar. Nonetheless, I frequently think of myself as blessed because of this or that, without regard for anything doing the blessing. It may be an incorrect use of the word, but I do not think it is quite so uncommon as you are making it out to be.
    To say that the “default” use involves a deity is about as accurate as saying the “default” use of seminal involves semen.

  20. #20 Stephanie Z
    November 9, 2009

    Becca, I assume you understand the grammar. I never assume anyone thinks about it as a way of understanding what people mean by words.

    Comparing “blessed” to “seminal” is a difficult proposition if for no other reason than that the populations using the two words are very different. And when did you decide it was safe to generalize from your experience to the general population?

  21. #21 Greg Laden
    November 9, 2009

    It may be an incorrect use of the word, but I do not think it is quite so uncommon as you are making it out to be.
    To say that the “default” use involves a deity is about as accurate as saying the “default” use of seminal involves semen.

    If that was actually the case, I would agree with you, Becca, but it simply isn’t.

    Oh, and I’m pretty sure I only use seminal in a joking, ironic manner, as in here, here, here and most significantly here. And I use it only slighty more often than Stephanie uses the word Spatchcock.

  22. #22 Jason Thibeault
    November 9, 2009

    I think there’s a marked difference between using phrases that have Biblical origin (and our language is positively RIDDLED with them) and using a word that specifically means “favored by God”.

  23. #23 Jason Thibeault
    November 9, 2009

    At that, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone, you aside Becca, that thought that “seminal” meant, by default, anything chauvinistic. Including amongst the self-professed feminists I’ve known. I do not extrapolate this to the general populace (that’d be wrong!), but this is honestly the first time I’ve heard anyone say the word “seminal” BY DEFAULT means something to do with semen.

    Like Theo Bromine, I figured the “seed” etymology and understood the word to mean “the initial work in a larger body of work by a person”. And I have heard it used to describe papers by women.

  24. #24 Tom
    November 9, 2009

    A few people have mentioned “community” and “context” as possible factors to consider.

    In many African American Communities, for example, “blessed” although having religious connotations, simultaneously use to carry just as many subversive connotations.

    In 19th Century antebellum South, the black American slave community took the Christian faith and adapted it to describe their own unique path of communal and individual subversion in a status quo of racially based social structure.

    It is unfortunate not enough African Americans in the community of today remember the legacy of black Christianity’s beginnings as a form of protest. When one was blessed, like Daniel and the Lion’s Den, one had somehow beaten the system of racial oppression.

    In addition, I am willing to wager that the story of black Christianity, especially in America, is one shared by Native, Mexican, Spanish and most if not all, marginalized American communities as well.

    In the case of the principal described above, I am also willing to wager his ethnic heritage is at least one of the above mentioned ethnicities. Of course, it is possible this is not the case.

    If so, then I would have to say that, usage of the word “blessed” in the context in which it was used, is “stolen” from what is an otherwise long history in communal and individual subversion of an inherently unfair social structure.

    Tom

  25. #25 Greg Laden
    November 9, 2009

    In the case of the principal described above, I am also willing to wager his ethnic heritage is at least one of the above mentioned ethnicities.

    Try blond hair blue eyed northern European female.

  26. #26 Stephanie Z
    November 9, 2009

    I like “spatchcock.” I try to work it in as often as possible. Of course, that’s still not very often.

  27. #27 Jay
    November 9, 2009

    @becca – When friends send me emails with Bible verses in them, I honestly don’t care – I can chose to read them or ignore them at my discretion. When someone at work (and I want to make clear that I’m talking about work at a Federal agency) sends a work related email with a Bible verse tacked onto the end of it, such a verse is an Establishment Clause violation. Period. A Federal employee sending an official email is an agent of the Federal government. It’s pretty cut and dried. Similarly, in Greg’s original example, a public school principal, in an official public school newsletter is an agent of the state or local government. (In Kentucky, where I am, they’re state employees.) Use of religious language in such official correspondence is similarly an Establishment Clause violation, and it’s a violation regardless of whether or not I agree with the thought expressed by the language.

    Now, you did make a very good point that some Biblical phrases have entered the vernacular and have largely lost any obvious religious connection – those aren’t the phrases that are problematic. I don’t think anyone here is trying to claim that we should police every word or phrase that has Biblical connections – to do so would be absurd – but when you have people qua representatives of public agencies putting verses (with book/chapter/verse notations) into official emails, or using phrases like “…how blessed I am…” or “I thank God for the opportunity…” in official speeches or correspondence, it’s appropriate to call them out on it, and Greg’s approach seems to have been as measured and civil as you could ask for.

  28. #28 Jason Thibeault
    November 9, 2009

    With my French heritage, I try to work in “poussin” whenever I can. In keeping with the fowl theme.

  29. #29 Theo Bromine
    November 9, 2009

    quoth becca: To say that the “default” use [of blessed] involves a deity is about as accurate as saying the “default” use of seminal involves semen.

    Obviously if one talks about “seminal fluid”, it is referring to semen. The question is whether the phrase “seminal work” is used to indicate that the work’s importance is metaphorically analogous to semen, or to seeds (and this is further complicated by the historical understanding that sperm were simply seeds that were planted in the garden of the female). Let’s try a thought experiment: How many people would find it amusing if I were to call a paper about declining sperm counts a “seminal work”? I assert that if it is amusing, it is therefore unexpected.

  30. #30 Jeremy
    November 10, 2009

    Wait, “seminal” refers to semen? I’m going to have to start using that word more often. I always assumed that it shared a similar root to semen, rather than actually referring to it. Like in that Ali G interview where he complains about being called a “homo sapien.”

    Anyway I agree with Greg, and it sounds like you had a good response too. Good work :) Language like that bothers me as well.

  31. #31 becca
    November 10, 2009

    “I never assume anyone thinks about it as a way of understanding what people mean by words.”
    More is the pity. Things would be more interesting if everyone did.

    “Comparing “blessed” to “seminal” is a difficult proposition if for no other reason than that the populations using the two words are very different. And when did you decide it was safe to generalize from your experience to the general population?”
    Oh come now. Don’t you see those statements as incongruous? Or do you have generalizable data on the populations using the two words?
    I was quite clear that, although I don’t particularly associate the given use of the word ‘blessed’ with religion, it obviously has that connotation [to some/most people]. That seems like an explicit recognition of the limits of my experience.

    Jason- google knows everything. Ask how many pages it has for “sexism use of the word seminal”. Also check the dictionary definitions for seminal.

    Jay- I get what you’re saying, but I work at a ‘state affiliated’ university. I certainly don’t think of myself as a government representative. I think you’ve just made the most compelling argument I’ve ever heard for never working for anything remotely state associated.
    That is, assuming you’ve got a plausible assessment of the constitution going. Personally, I believe your constitutional scholarship is on shakey grounds. A government employee’s email signature does NOT have the force of law (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). Thank the FSM.

  32. #32 Jason Thibeault
    November 10, 2009

    I’m not saying I don’t get that “seminal” can refer to semen, seminal vesicles or seminal fluid, Becca. I’m saying I don’t see it as the default. Googling “define: seminal” gives three definitions, one of them saying “of or pertaining to seed” as the first definition and “…semen” as the second.

    I’m not going to argue about that fact, frankly, because I recognize that feminists see the word as a direct attack on them, and honestly it’s a side concern and of little import in the topic at hand, being the fact that “blessed” means “ordained by God / clergy”. Not just “by default”, but as most of its meaning. It is only with recent use otherwise that it has come to mean colloquially anything to do with chance. “Seminal” has the same root word as “semen” and “seed”, so their meanings vary along a spectrum having to do with germination. “Bless” IS the root word, and it was defined in religious terms.

  33. #33 Stephanie Z
    November 10, 2009

    Becca, I did a quick check that you can try yourself. Google “seminal.” Jump to the fifth page of results, so you’re past the basic definitions. Grab the url of the top result on that page and pop it into a readability indexer. Do the same for pages 10, 15, 20 and 25 of results. Average the Flesch-Kincaid grade levels you’ve received for those pages.

    Repeat for “blessed,” although you’re allowed to grab the second result on a page if the first result is a church site with no sentences on the main page. This happened to me twice in five attempts.

    Compare the two. For “seminal,” I got 7.68. For “blessed,” 5.59. For “seminal -vesicle -fluid,” which cuts out the medical terminology, I got 7.29.

    U.S. adults, on average (what sort of average isn’t specified, so it’s probably a mean) read at between eighth- and ninth-grade levels. Because you want to be sure you’re understood, you target materials for general use to be at about a sixth-grade level. That’s the standard advice given for producing materials for public, adult use: sixth grade.

    The materials using “blessed” come in at or below that level. The materials using “seminal” aim two grades higher. Those are different audiences.

  34. #34 Jay
    November 11, 2009

    @becca:

    That is, assuming you’ve got a plausible assessment of the constitution going. Personally, I believe your constitutional scholarship is on shakey grounds.

    That’s certainly quite possible. However, is a federal employee using his official email as a platform to spread his religious views fundamentally different than a federal judge putting a monument to the ten commandments in his courthouse? I’m not sure that it is…

Current ye@r *