Tag Archives: D


I have a love-hate relationship with dictionaries. Dictionaries can be an amazing tool, and they can be a great read, but sometimes they also seem to stifle creatively, foster errors about how language works, and generally get very badly used.

What is a dictionary? It’s a list of words with their meanings – the dictionaries I’m interested in here are mainly same-language, where the words are described (people often say defined, and I’ll come back to that) in their own language. Cross-language or translation dictionaries are tools for a different purpose and have their own benefits and misuses. How does a word get into a dictionary? Some people decide to put it there. How do they decide? They look at examples of how the word is being used. There are dictionaries which claim to tell you what use is right and what is wrong, and this can be helpful when it prevents miscommunication. But the rightness and wrongness of the use of a specific word rests on how other people have used it in the past. A word is correctly used when it follows the pattern of use within a specific community, so that it can be understood.

What a dictionary is not is absolute – dictionaries are updated all the time, and can’t keep up with the latest changes. (Have you ever bought a new road atlas and found that it didn’t have an even newer section of motorway marked? Like that.) A dictionary is also not an authority. It’s a source of evidence, and there are cases where you can use an appropriate dictionary to give evidence for your argument that, for example, the phrase ‘shagging machine’ existed as slang for the vagina in 1885. (That’s Jonathan Green’s timeline of vagina slang, based on his Dictionary of Slang.) There are also cases where the wrong dictionary provides no help whatsoever, or even actively undermines an argument. For example, if in a philosophy essay someone refers to an ordinary dictionary (like the OED) for a definition of a technical term, it tends to suggest not only that the author of the essay hasn’t understood the term from other sources, but that they’ve missed the fact that this might be a word with a different use in the philosophical community. (Actually, ‘argument‘ is a case where this sort of misunderstanding might occur!)


A close up of the word ‘dictionary’ in a dictionary, by PDPics from Pixabay.

So, what are good and bad ways to use dictionaries? In my opinion, a dictionary is great for browsing. It’s great for inspiration (especially if you were, for whatever reason, determined to write two blog posts for each letter of the alphabet, or something dotty like that). It’s great for some kinds of information: how is this word used most often? what is the history of this word? what grammatical patterns does this word usually follow?

It’s not so good when a dictionary shuts down options. There is, Michael Rosen once said, not a noun in English which can’t be verbed – but of course such new coinages, while following perfectly cromulent English rules, do not appear in dictionaries unless they catch on and lots of people start using them. (Cromulent, having caught on from the Simpsons, probably will appear eventually.) If you only use words as they have already been used, there can be a loss of playfulness and creativity, and of course no space to say anything new. We invent new things and start talking about different experiences all the time, so we need to create and establish new patterns of use or entirely new words. Mouse, gay, television, asexual, Brexit, woke… words grow and change as the conceptual needs of the language using community develop.

And a dictionary needs to be a tool. It should be used to build confidence and aid understanding, not overrule instinct or add confusion. Using tools appropriately is part of learning any skill, and the right dictionary at the right time is as important as the right screwdriver for the screw: dictionaries which give history, or current use, or grammatical tips for formal settings, or the use within a particular community, or help to check a spelling, are all very good in the right place. Getting the wrong one, or assuming that they are interchangeable, or that words always have to mean the same thing regardless of context, or that the origin of a word tells you what it means now, can all lead to serious mistakes.

D is for Discourse

Although I don’t call the kind of analysis of language I do “discourse analysis” – it arises from different sources to the academic practice known technically by that name – as a method, it has a lot in common and I do end up identifying some ‘discourses’ around the topics which interest me. You can read the Wikipedia article about discourse or the University of Strathclyde’s piece about discourse analysis, but these get technical quite quickly. Rather than using the term discourse, I might talk about the way in which an issue is framed, or how some terms are expected to appear together – so often, sometimes, that it can seem natural or even inevitable, although language isn’t really either of those things.

For example, much of my work focusses on religious language, and specifically on ways of talking about – or the discourse around – God (or the Light, or the Spirit, or whatever you call it: regular readers of this blog will know this song by now!). In this work, I’ve identified the use of lists as a key feature of some ways of approaching the problem. They work in several ways: pointing out and making explicit the diversity of the community’s theological views; demonstrating the value the community places on both inclusion (all these perspectives are included in our list); and potentially directing us back towards a negative theology in which we cannot say anything about God by saying too much, overwhelming us with words. Here, talking about the discourse around naming the Divine directs our attention towards the way that language is used in a particular social context to construct a community with particular features (one which values both diversity and inclusivity, for example).

In other situations, the discourse around a term might tell us how people understand that word or phrase – looking at how they use it and what else comes to mind when they think about it can tell us a lot about what the term means to them. This is part of what I’ll be doing in my current research project about ‘threshing’ as a Quaker concept. I don’t want to say much about this yet, because it’s still in progress (you could help by filling in the survey or coming to the workshop). However, the questions we are asking in that work could be described in part as looking at the discourse around threshing.

The concept of discourse has been used in all sorts of contexts to look more deeply into the ways which people talk about things. Everything from the way we talk about health to the way the media talks about political figures can be addressed by looking at discourse which surrounds a concept – usually there turn out to be overriding ideas present in popular discourse around a topic (for example: ‘health’ looks a certain way and can be measured by weight and other numbers; ‘politicians’ are described using a particular set of verbs and adjectives). Recently, I’ve been paying attention to the Quaker discourse around nominations, and realising that the words paired with the term ‘nominations’ can be subtly weighted: ‘nominations committee’, ‘nominations business’, ‘nominations process’ and ‘the Friend nominated’ but also ‘accepting nomination’, ‘considering nominations’, ‘nominated and appointed’, etc. Perhaps some of the significance of these becomes clear when you consider possible alternative discourses: what if, instead of ‘accepting nomination’, Friends ‘welcomed nomination’ or ‘submitted to nomination’? It’s clear to me that these terms feel very different and that in choosing the term ‘accept’ the community is saying something about what it is like to be asked to be nominated and to say ‘yes’ to that. (I’m still working on exactly what it says, suggestions for further discourse analysis in this area are welcome!)

D is for Divine

I spent a while trying to work out which letter to put this under. G. S. D. L. W. In my recent academic work I’ve talked a lot about the ‘or whatever you call it’ style of talking about God (or the Light, or the Spirit, or… you get the idea). I’ve written about this both here and for other sites before; recently I used it as an example of disagreement success. I think it’s fair enough, though, to ask: what actually is this it which we might name in many ways?

Well, I’m not even sure that it is an it in the sense of being an object, for example. I sometimes get the feeling that we are lumping more than one thing together under the same label: Stasa wrote a post after one of my workshops in which she explored the possibility that this is the case. I also think it’s possible that the Divine is multiple at one level and single at another level, maybe even multiple in different ways at different levels or from different perspectives. I absolutely would not want to say that one of those levels was ‘better’ or ‘more enlightened’ than another – do you know Douglas Hoffstadter’s analogy about the ant hill? (It’s about minds, not God, but never mind that for now.) The levels from the single ant to the whole system are all real, and all worth studying, and none of them can be called ‘wrong’.

As a Quaker, I do have a personal position on what the Divine is like. Some of it is actually about what I know God isn’t like: along with Giles Fraser, I don’t believe in the God Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in. I don’t believe in the omni-this, omni-that Deity whom we might call the God of the philosophers. I find some religious stories helpful, and others not so much; my reasoning mind revolts at miracles and I have to work quite hard to see the narrative power of them. That said, some of the stories I do find helpful come either from the Pagan traditions or from the Bible. After many years of thinking about language in this context, I’m quite relaxed about it – it’s hard to shock me with a new word or bore me with an old word, partly because in both cases I’m less interested in the word itself than the ways in which it is used. I do believe – in fact I’d say that I know from experience – that there is some kind of Divine will with which a person or a group can be aligned (or not aligned). This is the ‘will of God’ which Quakers seek in Meeting for Worship for Business; it’s always a bit provisional, it’s ‘what we who are here should do now’, rather than a command to others or for all time. I believe, but I don’t know, that if we do faithfully what we are asked to do we will be taking tiny steps, one after another, towards the Kingdom of Heaven (or the Divine Commonwealth, or the realisation of our true natures, if you prefer).

I also think that our experiences of the Divine – whatever They might really be like – are heavily influenced by our imaginations, our bodies, our world, and our societies. I know that my experience of the Goddess Brigid is very shaped by the reading of Pagan books which I did as a teenager, that my experience of God’s will is very shaped by my participation in the Quaker community and Quaker practice, and that my choice to label some of my experience ‘religious’ (but not ‘Christian’) is very shaped by my encounters with those terms in all sorts of, sometimes irrelevant, contexts. I assume that, whether they like it or not, this is broadly true for other people and act accordingly, trying to understand what the influences are in a particular case before trying to tease out where our understandings might agree or disagree.

D is for… Drafting

Not draughts as in the chill winds which sweep through even the most well-insulated of Meeting Houses (when someone sitting near the window has a hot flash), but drafts as in draft minutes and draft epistles, or indeed draft blog posts.

As the minute writer to a Quaker business meeting, whether as co-convenor or assistant clerk or similar, the offering of a draft is an important part of the process. Sometimes it’s right at the beginning of the process: we take something on a draft minute prepared before the meeting, and that’s just a matter of reading out the draft and waiting to see whether it’s acceptable. More often, though, in a complex deliberation, a clerk will write and offer a draft minute having heard many pieces of ministry or voices in discussion.

I find that in order to make the changes to a minute which a meeting requests, as fast as possible and as well as possible, it is necessary to let go of any attachment I have to the draft minute. If it’s someone else’s pre-prepared draft, that’s no problem. If it’s not an interesting draft, if I haven’t tried to be clever, it’s not too hard. I trip up sometimes when I have worked to choose the best word or the best phrase, to encapsulate what I heard as if I were writing poetry, and someone objects to a part I thought was good.

In other kinds of writing, one has time and space to deal with that process at leisure: to copy and paste sentences your editor didn’t like into a file called ‘save for later’, or to forget which parts of this chapter you particularly liked, so that you aren’t disappointed when they need chopping or changing or footnoting. In writing a minute, the changes are made live, so that the new draft of the minute can be read to the meeting.

I’m not an experienced clerk, but when I realise that I’m tripping over such things, I try and pray: Spirit, you have guided my pen and this draft is my service to you; it is yours and the changes we make are yours; may we end up with a minute which is true, and accurate, and sufficient.

D is for… Discernment

We had a Hearts and Minds Prepared session about Discernment recently, so the topic is fresh in my mind – and it will be coming up again, as part of our theme for Yearly Meeting.

What is Discernment? It’s seeing clearly, or seeing what is the right part. It’s not what you desire, although it might sometimes happen to line up with what you want; it’s how you work out what you’re being led to do. Quakers, generally speaking, try and practice both individual and corporate discernment – seeking the will of the Spirit, the right path forwards, for ourselves and our communities.

I think lots of things can factor into discernment. In my own life, sometimes discerning the path forward simply seems like having no other option: on my feet to speak in Meeting because I couldn’t stay in my seat. Bigger life choices are more complex. Sometimes it seems there’s no real choice, or that a way has opened before you, that this is the best chance you have to use the gifts you were given, or that you have to do this to be true to your principles. (Starting the PhD, for example, felt like all of those.)

Sometimes individual discernment and our corporate discernings lie alongside one another – I went vegan at Yearly Meeting 2011 when Quakers in Britain made a formal commitment to sustainability. Sometimes what feels like the right path forward also feels impossible – I keep discerning a leading to go plastic-free, and finding that I cannot live up to this in practice.

Discernment isn’t just an internal process. Information is often needed and must be gathered. Everyone in a situation will have their own forms of discernment. Sometimes a random outside element can be helpful – runes, oracle cards, or the Tarot can provide this (or you can let Quaker Faith and Practice fall open). Sometimes straight up prayer – asking Deity a question and listening for the answer – is the way forward.

I think discernment is a bit like the process you use when you’re being led along a string trail. Have you done the string trail exercise? The string trail is just a string, which leads through a wood, having been tied around trees, over logs, under bushes, past a nettle patch, and so forth. You’re blindfolded and your team leader gives you instructions. You have to listen carefully to the instructions, and at the same time keep hold of the string and use your spare hand (and your feet) to feel for obstacles.

D is for… Druidry

I understand Druidry to be a modern faith – drawing on ancient roots, to be sure, but nevertheless modern in form, outlook and content. Futhermore, I don’t see any reason to think that modernity is a problem.

Druidry is like a tree with many roots.

It has ancient roots, reaching back to what little we know of the ancient British and Celtic peoples. These roots bring us a name, stories, the importance of trees and mistletoe, and a healthy skepticism about history written by the winners.

It has medieval roots, which tap into the rich vein of stories recorded throughout the middle ages and later. Folklore, romances, practices of magic and prayer all feed into this root.

It has modern roots, as the Industrial Revolution takes hold. Druids re-enter the popular imagination to be heroes, and Ross Nichols was able to join a Druid Order – which he then re-formed.

Now it is growing postmodern roots. Druidry today works with a wide range of material – depending on the branch and the practitioner – including traditional stories, psychology, ritual and magic, and Celtic religion.

We can also recognize other trees with similar roots or from similar seeds. Wicca and Celtic Reconstructionism might be examples of the former; Hinduism and the Native American religions might be examples of the latter.

My theory of religions does not say that we are climbing a mountain to one point, and must choose our paths. It says that we are all spreading our leaves to the light from one sun, and must grow from where we are.

The Druidry which I practice – strive to practice – celebrates life and physicality, seasons and elements, sacred energies and natural cycles.

Sources: I couldn’t have written this post if I hadn’t read Isaac Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism, Ronald Hutton’s The Druids: A History, or Ross Nichol’s The Book of Druidry among other things.

D is for… Death

(For obvious reasons, this post may be upsetting and/or triggering. It does not discuss any specific or individual death, just the concept and my thoughts about it. Here as elsewhere, you are under no obligation to read.)

Death is a distressing subject, and because of that, maybe we don’t talk about it enough. I think it’s actually really important to talk about death when it’s a far-off prospect, almost hypothetical, because when it happens it’s too late to talk.

In some religious traditions, talking about death turns out to mean talking about what comes after death. I’m not very interested in that. Firstly, because I think we can’t know, and I don’t see any logical way to choose between the competing theories; and secondly, because I think it doesn’t matter, we can’t control what we don’t know about. And thirdly because I personally suspect that my consciousness, my self, whatever you want to call it, will not survive death. There’ll just be the atoms of my body, moving on to new things, as they have also done throughout my life.

Your theories about life after death do matter, though, when they lead you to treat people differently in life. Does a belief in Heaven make you more forgiving or more judgmental of people who are alive? Does a belief in Reincarnation make you more or less accepting of people’s mistakes, including your own? I like to think that my belief – that death is the end, and that it is natural, a wholesome part of the cycles of nature – encourages me to focus on the present and to welcome change as it occurs, though I’m sure I don’t live up to that.

Sometimes death seems like a relief or an escape. So far, I have survived my times of wishing for death by waiting for or creating change in my life which made it bearable again; but more than once I have prayed to Hel and Hecate for release, to be taken out of this world which I could no longer stand.

The death of one person, though, always leaves people behind. When it is my time to die, I hope that those who live on after me will celebrate what little I have achieved in my lifetime, and remember that death is normal, it is the only natural end for anything which has lived. (With this in mind, I do not intend to seek out medical treatments which extend my life beyond its natural end. I hope to have the chance to discuss this with a doctor well before I reach that point.)

I don’t have strong feelings about how I should be buried or what ceremonies should be held: if guidelines are needed, the guiding principles should be sustainability, simplicity, and comfort to those who require it. Organ donation is a form of recycling, as is composting. My Goddesses don’t care whether you hold Meeting for Worship or a Druid Funeral or something else or both or neither, They’ll speak to you anyway if They wish.

How do you feel about death? Have you discussed your death with those close to you? Or theirs?