or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, January 21, 2008


Yesterday was the big finale of The Amazing Race, so I'm going to be gassing on about television (and, tangentially, religion) for a bit. I promise I won't make a habit of this, and you can skip to the next bit (after the plus sign, as usual) if you want. I sure don't blame you.

Something happened on the show that has only ever happened once before: my favourite team won! The sweet-natured Rachel and TK pulled in to the finish line about 20 minutes before the second-place team; a combination of luck, hard work, and breathtaking calm secured them the victory. Unlike every other team on the show--and nearly every other team in the history of the series--they never argued; they had a few tense moments at times(understandable, given the pressure and the lack of sleep), but they never screamed at each other or said anything belittling. It was lovely. (Some people found them boring, but I'd rather watch a hundred laid-back teams like them than one more Victoria and Jonathan, shrieking, insulting, shoving, and weeping. What a misery that was.)

The final challenge, the one what cinched it for Rachel and TK, was a sort of puzzle that the show has used before: one member of each team had to choose from a batch of items ten things that represented the ten countries they'd been to, with a bewildering set of limitations. (Three of the items had be animal-related; another had to be a form of transportation shaped like a stick, which meant either a vaulting pole or a pair of stilts; and so forth.)

By all appearances, Rachel, second to the challenge, simply set about recalling which order they'd visited the countries in and which items might fill the categories required. (It helped that her team had kept a journal of the trip, and, presumably intuiting that such a challenge might come up as it had before, spent the flight to Alaska re-reading and memorizing.) Christina, whose team had gotten there first, also went about the process logically, and didn't get it right the first time, so she began trying other combinations, and quickly got bogged down, because the puzzle had been designed so that there was only one right answer and a whole lot of possible wrong ones. At some point, possibly jet-lagged, she simply panicked and began repeating variations on, "God, please help me." She wasn't just saying any old thing out of desperation: without a doubt, she was praying.

I'm not criticizing Christina for resorting to prayer. You're in an awful situation, you do whatever you think it takes. I just really, honestly don't understand what theists think prayer is supposed to accomplish.

If we postulate that the Christian god exists, then he's supposed to be omniscient, which means he knows if you have a problem. He's also omnipotent, which means that no act is beyond him. These two things together mean that he knows what's troubling you and he can fix it if he feels like it.

The trouble with the assumption of joint omniscience and omnipotence is that the only logical conclusion available is that everything in the universe is exactly as this god wants it to be. If it weren't just to his liking, then he'd know about it, and he'd either change it, because he can, or he wouldn't, because he doesn't care one way or the other, but you still wouldn't be able to say that he wants it to be any different than it is. Prayer, therefore, is nothing short of an insult, and a huge, blasphemous insult at that, because its very nature implies that the deity being prayed to is incompetent.

And then there's the notion--the spectacle--of millions and millions of people, begging for something to be changed in their favour, and often the most trivial of things. God, please let me pass the geometry exam. God, please let me lose twenty pounds before the wedding. God, please give me the answer to this puzzle so I can reach the finish line and win a million dollars. What about all those other people whose prayers obviously aren't being answered, those other things that aren't being changed for the better? What about all those other awful things that are happening, the rapes and murders, all the people starving or dying in terrible ways? Why isn't the god tending to those people's needs if he loves all of humanity? It's not a trivial problem, and religious apologists stumble all over themselves trying to give their god an out. Here's what it boils down to, though, as expressed by playwright Christopher Durang:

Are all our prayers answered? Yes, they are; what people who ask that question often don't realize is that sometimes the answer to our prayer is "no." Dear God, please make my mother not be crazy. God's answer : no. Dear God, please let me recover from cancer. God's answer: no. Dear God, please take away this toothache. God's answer: alright, but you're going to be run over by a car. But every bad thing that happens to us, God has a special reason for.

I know that different people have different experiences of prayer. Some simply use it to communicate with their deity, with no expectation of the granting of favours. The central question remains, though: if this deity already knows everything, then why, exactly, do you have to tell it anything at all?

Ambrose Bierce defined the verb "to pray" as "to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy", and who could do better?


The word "despondent" came up somehow this weekend; I might have heard it on television, or perhaps I read it somewhere, or maybe it just popped into my mind unannounced, as words are wont to do from time to time. The first thing that came into my head immediately afterwards was, "Well, that has to be related to "respond" somehow...but how?"

How, indeed.

"Despondent", first off, means "without hope: utterly discouraged". "Respond", of course, means "to answer". There just doesn't seem to be any point of connection between the two. But language has a way of veering away in strange new directions, doesn't it?

Both words descend from Latin "spondere", "to pledge, to promise". This, in turn, comes from Indo-European "spend-", "to make an offering" or "to perform a ritual". It isn't hard to see how the one became the other. "Respond", in turn, literally means "to pledge back", which is to say to make a promise in return for another promise, or, more generally, simply to reply. It would be tempting to say that "despondent" is what you feel when your promises have not been answered, or when the rituals you performed and the offerings you made to propitiate the gods have not had any result, but that isn't the etymology: the word comes from the Latin phrase "animam despondere", "to give up one's soul", because the root of "despond" is "promise away". You're despondent because, having given away something of great value, you no longer have any hope.

There aren't many "-spond-" words in English.* There's "despondent", and "respond" plus "correspond. Then there's "transponder", which is a portmanteau of "transmitter" and "responder". And finally, we have "spondee", which is a metrical foot consisting of two equally stressed beats: when Michelle Pfeiffer says "Get bent!" in that episode of The Simpsons, that's a spondee.

But what can this have to do with "spondere", "to promise"? It's a little convoluted, but, as it turns out, there really is a logical reason for it. A spondee was the meter used when making a particular sort of offering to the gods--one of drink, for which the Greeks had a word, "spendein", "to make a libation offering", obviously derived exactly from the IE. They later came up with "sponde", "a solemn libation", which led, eventually, to "spondee" in English. (It took a while: the word dates from the late fourteenth century.)

There are a few other words descended from "spend-" and "spondere". "Sponsor" is one; that's someone who makes a pledge of some sort to you, and "responsible" describes what that person is to you, in some way or another. And finally, "spouse" is someone whom you've pledged to spend your entire life with.

* "Spondylitis", an inflammation of the spine, doesn't count: it has a different source, Greek "spondulos", "vertebra". If "spondulos" and "spondere" are in any way related, I can't find any evidence of it. You may be amused to know that the slangy old word "spondulicks", meaning "money", apparently comes from "spondulos", for the fanciful way a stack of coins looks like a stack of vertebrae.


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