Kakistocracy

While in seminary I had the interesting job of teaching a visually impaired student Greek. This wasn’t an arbitrary choice on the part of my professors since, as an undergraduate I had exhausted the Greek curriculum at Grove City College and my fourth year the professor suggested I teach the course to the second years. This was, however, strictly koiné—I’ve always been from the lower class echelons. Trying to figure out how to explain a dead language to a student who couldn’t see required some creativity. At that point in my life ministry loomed as a career and it was still fairly easy to learn new languages. I was studying Hebrew at the time with the inimitable William Holladay at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, both of which are now gone.

I recently ran across a story in the Washington Post that utilized an unfamiliar word based on Greek: kakistocracy. It seems that the present administration has officials scrambling for new words to describe the depths to which our government is willing to sink. There’s an old saying: “the Greeks have a word for it”—I suspect the ancients would be shocked to see this particular word emerging again after centuries of progress. The translation of kakistocracy is quite logical for those with some Hellenistic training; it means “rule by the worst.” The sad thing is that democracy has come to this. Anyone with a fragment of a brain stem could see that 45 didn’t win the election in any sense but an electoral college one—giving us a new direction to sling the related word “kaka” around. It was the fact that those privileged to vote simply didn’t get around to it. As it was, the “incumbent” lost by three million votes. Nobody, however, is willing to do anything about it. It’s kaka.

If the swamp has been drained, it’s been to become a cesspool. With complete disregard for decency, decorum, and democracy, the directives issuing from the potty mouth on Pennsylvania Avenue demonstrate just how diabolical government can become. The sad thing is, the Greeks already had a word for it. One thing we know about our species is that we like to repeat our worst moments over and over again. Even worse, we seem to be proud of it. So as the kakistocracy grows to include porn stars, genital grabbing, and treasonous relations with foreign nations, the world looks in wonder and concludes people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had gotten it wrong after all. At least the student I was tutoring, although she couldn’t see, wanted to learn to read. And that made all the difference.

Rookie Mistakes

So now it’s got a stain on the cover. And it didn’t even come with a book jacket. Perhaps it’s symbolic? The year was 1993. I’d finished my doctorate at Edinburgh the year before, and, against all odds, had landed a full-time teaching position. That position was at Nashotah House, but never mind. Like all doctoral students I’d sent out my dissertation for publication. It’d been accepted by the prestigious series Alter Orient und Altes Testament, produced by the dual publisher Verlag Butzon & Bercker and Neukirchener Verlag. Most European houses print these books cloth-bound (mine in blue!), no dust jacket, straight to the library market. I was proud. I had my first copy in hand in time to show around at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. There I spied William Holladay, my Hebrew teacher, now deceased. He was sitting on the floor in a corridor, eating his lunch. I joined him and showed him my book. In his inimitable way, he snatched it (leaving a grease stain on the cover) and within seconds said, “there’s a word misspelled in your title.”

Crestfallen, I took my first copy back. I wrote to the publisher, but these things only ever receive one printing and I never heard back. How embarrassing! Your first foray into academic publishing, and you look like an idiot who can’t spel. Now, in my defense, the cover is simply what I thought was a photomechanical replication of the the title page. The world “Millennia” was spelled correctly where I’d proofed it inside. How they left out an “n” on the binding die is a mystery. I never got proofs of the cover. Besides, a book’s title is on the title page, right? Never judge a book by it’s cover! Mine has a stain on it.

The book, although on Asherah, never got much notice. It’s still routinely overlooked. One of the truly sad things, though, came from a senior scholar in the field, nameless here, who did mention my work. In his book he put a [sic] after the ailing word on the cover. That was an intentional slight. Had he looked at the title page—from which I’d been taught to take bibliographic references—he would’ve found the word spelled correctly. Many publishers do not let authors proof the binding die for their cloth-stamped covers. A senior scholar knocking down a struggling junior with an obscure three-letter word. Welcome to academia. The book did get a kind of second life when Gorgias Press reprinted it, with additional material. I still sometimes pull that first copy off the shelf, however, and wonder what can take the stain out of blue canvas. As long as someone can feel superior citing a mistake beyond a young colleague’s control, I suspect it will remain.

It’s Okay

It once seemed improbable that an entire book could be written on one word. The first time I noticed this I was a doctoral student who’d run across the late William Holladay’s published dissertation on the Hebrew word shuv. Wow, I thought, an entire book on a single vocable. One syllable, nonetheless. Thus I was predisposed to read Allan Metcalf’s OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word. The justification Metcalf gives for his “greatest word” award is the fact that OK is the most-used word of American origin world-wide. Even in languages with other scripts, there are ways of fabricating the “okay” pronunciation and everybody knows what it means. It’s really quite interesting. All the more so since OK first appeared as a joke. It’s now used by everybody in all seriousness. Just think of what one says to someone who’s been hurt or is ill. Isn’t the first question inevitably, “Are you okay?”

OK, you may be saying, but you say your blog’s about religion. Yes, and I’m getting to that, okay? Along about halfway through the book, Metcalf discusses how OK tends not to be used for products because it suggests mediocrity. An exception was James Pyle’s O.K. Soap back in the 1860’s. One of the ads included this affidavit: “The most intelligent classes in New-York use it. Editors of most of the religious papers patronize it.” I had to smile at that. Religious folk had, and sometimes still have (when they’re not too oily) the reputation of clean living. If you’re selling soap, you’re selling sanctity. It’s a very ancient connection. Anthropologists have shown time and again that purity is a concept that the religious own. Something about being worldly makes you feel like you should take a shower.

And it’s not only soap that makes okay religious. In the concluding chapter that describes OK as an American philosophy based on the “I’m Okay—You’re Okay” transactional psychological school, Metcalf notes we treat religions in just that way. Religious tolerance is saying “your religion’s OK.” That’s a lot to think about, considering that we’re talking just two letters here. And this book was written before the 2016 election, when tolerance was a word Americans were just beginning to understand. Maybe our hope is in getting OK back into circulation. After all, giving national security secrets away to Russia is okay. If you’ve got a Republican majority who’s going to quibble? Even Russians know what OK means, at least when it works to their advantage.