Tag Archives: language

Ellipsis and elision

Ellipsis and elision are processes of missing things out. The ellipsis, often signalled by three dots, ‘…’, is something left unsaid – perhaps for brevity (you can use an ellipsis to cut down a long quotation), perhaps tailing off because you aren’t sure what the options are (a text message: “do you want to go for dinner or…?”), or perhaps leaving something unsaid because you think it’s obvious or want the other person to draw their own conclusions (for example, ending with, “hence…”).

In the Quaker eldership & oversight handbook Quality and Depth of Worship and Ministry, there’s a list of words for the divine – for things we might be “seeking to worship” – which ends, “God…” One of the things that suggests, I think, is that readers are expected to be able to add other items to the list. People in Quaker discussion groups, for whom this document was written, are welcome to use lots of language for the divine: to see the list as welcoming and the ellipsis as a space into which they can speak, putting in their own preferred terms. Another things this suggests, especially in the Quaker context, is that the list can never be complete and at the end it trails off into silence. After we have put in all the things we can think of to say about God, there will still be more to say and we won’t know what that is. We can respond with silence.

That single ellipsis, then, is a gap in which, in my research, I found both a community process – people contributing – and a theological approach. Other things are also commonly left out in Quaker speech and writing. Elision in linguistics is the process of missing out sounds and bringing words together, as when “I am” becomes “I’m”. It can also be used more abstractly to describe the ways in which multiple complex matters can be brought together and confused – think of a politician who, in arguing for their particular policy, focuses on a few positive outcomes and glosses over numerous other possible effects and interactions. Sometimes this a problem (if you oppose the politician’s idea and think they’re missing or hiding something which would means everyone opposing their policy, it’s a very important problem). At other times it’s a technique for getting things done without having to settle questions which are at a tangent to the core issue at hand.

Consider a common Quaker phrase, “led to”, as in “I was led to oppose this policy” or “We were led to make a statement”. The main business of these statements is the action to which someone was led, and in the process they elide another issue – who or what did the leading? (At this point some readers may be thinking of the phrase “passive voice” – please read this Wikipedia paragraph which I think explains that it’s not the issue here.) The one leading us is God, or the Light, or the Spirit, or that of God within us, or the Ground of Being, or the Universe, or Love, or… – or something of which we cannot fully speak, someone whose Being is incomprehensible to us human beings and hence ineffable. Hence the need for elision.

Dictionaries

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!)

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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.

Fresh eyes on Multiple Religious Belonging

I’ve worked on Multiple Religious Belonging on and off for a long time now (as evidenced by my academic publications on it from 2015, 2017, and 2018, as well as previous blog posts, and perhaps the title of my blog!). Having had a break, I’m thinking about these things again as I prepare to run a Woodbrooke online course about Multiple Religious Belonging next month. There are big questions involved, of course – like what counts as belonging (who has to recognise it? does it require practice, or social connections, or belief, or all of those or none?), and what counts as a religion (do we mean ‘world religions’ or ‘traditions’ or ‘faith communities’?) Those are good questions, but rather than start with them, then rule things in or out of ‘multiple religious belonging’ on that basis, it might be as useful to start by looking at what people call ‘multiple religious belonging’ and use that to reflect on the understandings of religion and belonging which appear.

For example, being a Jewish Buddhist is common enough that there’s a Wikipedia page listing notable people who have this joint identity. The introduction to it, though, points out that this looks different for different people in the list: some might have a Jewish identity through their family (because Judaism functions in this context as both religion and ethnicity) and be mainly Buddhist in terms of religious practice, while others, like Alan Lew, actively practice both religious Judaism and Buddhist meditation. Just in describing that example, I’ve started to uncover ideas about what religion is: it can be inherited or acquired; it can be practised or ignored; both Judaism and Buddhism are seen as religions, or there wouldn’t be the same need to point out and explain people’s dual affiliations; and a specific religion can have characteristic practices, such as meditation.

Other examples might add other ideas. Sometimes people name a specific tradition within a religion (Anglican-Wiccan) but at other times they use broader terms (Christian-Pagan). That might reflect an understanding of their tradition as importantly distinct from other traditions: for example, saying ‘Quaker’ rather than ‘Christian’ because although Quakerism is historically part of the Christian family, that individual doesn’t identify as Christian, or saying ‘Anglican’ rather than ‘Christian’ as part of an understanding that combining Anglicanism with something else is different to combining Roman Catholicism with something else. This might be hard to untangle from a single use, or without asking the speaker for more information. A broader term might be employed to show solidarity or because more specific terms get misunderstand (compare the PaganDash campaign, in which Pagans tried to get greater recognition on the census results by starting their write-in answers with the same, recognisable, word).

In my own life, I tend to speak differently about different communities. I’ll say I’m a member of a Quaker meeting, usually before anything else; if it comes up, I say I’m a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD). By contrast, I usually say I have experience of or have participated in the Community of Interbeing, forms of Buddhism, or various kinds of Paganism. That partly represents my level of commitment – although I probably use a Community of Interbeing practice, reciting the Five Mindfulness Trainings, almost as often as I use a formal OBOD practice – but also how I feel about the traditions and the communities. OBOD works mainly through correspondence course, and it’s easy to feel connected without an in-person community; the Community of Interbeing works a lot through local sanghas, and I’ve never joined one; Quakers work through meetings, and I’m both part of a local Quaker meeting and (very!) involved in wider Quaker activities. In this perhaps I’m revealing my own ideas about what it means to belong to a religion – very much about participation, community acceptance, and regular activity. I didn’t mention belief at all, for example, which would be highly important in some other understandings.

How do you talk about multiple religious belonging, whether or not you practise it? What ideas about religion do you have, or have you spotted one in this post which I didn’t mention?

Stone Age Speech

My novel about Neolithic lesbians on Orkney, Between Boat and Shore, was published on Friday by Manifold Press – information and purchase links. In this post I want to explore one of the challenges of writing a novel set in the Neolithic period, about six or seven thousand years ago: namely, deciding what words to use. At times it felt more like writing fantasy or sci-fi – constructing a different, unknown world and working out how to translate it into our own – than writing something historical.

Warning: this post contains minor spoilers about the book, the setting and the characters, although not about any major events of the plot. 

Some things were actually easier. I think if I were writing a novel set a hundred years ago, I might be tempted to spend ages consulting timelines of slang and other resources, and write at least some of the dialogue in the language of the time. For the early Neolithic, this just isn’t possible – not even because it would need translating, but because we have very little idea what language was spoken anywhere in the world at that time. In Europe, it was probably whatever language became Proto-Indo-European, a language we don’t have in full but linguists can reconstruct in parts from the commonalities between later languages. I used Proto-Indo-European and its wide geographic spread in two ways: firstly, as a justification for characters who had travelled some distance around the coast of Europe being able to basically understand those in the new community where they had arrived; secondly, as inspiration for the names of characters. I applied a liberal amount of poetic license to adjust for ease of pronunciation etc., but almost every character in the book has a name based on a word calculated to have existed in Proto-Indo-European. For example, Trebbi is named from the root treb-, dwelling or settlement, which survived in the Celtic languages and will be familiar to map-readers in Cornwall and Wales as the prefix Tre-.

The low remains/reconstructions of a house built from wide, flat stones. In the front of the picture an entrance way is visible; in the middle there are the thick outer walls and single-stone inner walls of the house, including two hearth spaces; and in the background there's water, both the near and far shores of a loch. The sky above is grey and cloudy.

A house at Barnhouse Neolithic Settlement on Orkney, one of the inspirations for the novel.

Apart from that, I used casual, modern British English, including a set of neopronouns. Of the many options available for nonbinary pronouns, I tried to choose a set which would suit my characters, be clear enough not to need explicit discussion in the text, and also not introduce confusion. With that in mind, I used ey/em/eir. The parallel with the sort-of patterns of he/him/his, she/her/hers, and they/them/theirs seems close enough that readers won’t need it explaining, or have to re-read sentences to clear up confusion about plural/singular, and the sounds work with the sounds of the names I used. (It doesn’t work with Proto-Indo-European, which apparently didn’t have third person pronouns at all… I briefly considered taking that on as a writing challenge, but couldn’t face ‘this one’ and ‘that one’ for a whole novel!)

I also gave some thought to the question of swearing – what does a Neolithic person say when they want to be rude? I found N. K. Jemison’s blog post on Fantastic Swearing very helpful here, and essentially ran with her observation that scatological language is crude almost everywhere. I also adopted her position that there was no reason for my characters to treat sexual language as swearing – and extended that to not included swear words in my sex scenes. The descriptions there use plain but specific language: ‘vulva’ rather than ‘cunt’. (The Proto-Indo-European word was something like pisda or pisdeh, by the way.)

Other choices about language followed in a similar vein. They talk about doctors rather than healers, for example, choosing modern terms rather than trying create a ‘primitive’ atmosphere. Some of the choices about language for religion were shaped by my Quaker sources of inspiration, although I tried to steer clear of technical terms. The village has a leader rather than a priest or a king, and alert readers will recognise the functions of clerk and elder in the decision-making meetings of this pre-literate society. They have ideas about the ancestors, something implied by the way people of that time and place built tombs (I invented this specific village, but their tomb is real and archaeologists do think megalithic tombs went with territory and communities). They also talk about Goddess; not the Goddess, as it would usually be put in modern English, but Goddess as a fact of life the way some people are able to talk about God.

Another question which didn’t appear until I’d finished writing the novel is how to describe the characters and their relationships. The main story line is about two women who start a romantic and sexual relationship, but is it really a lesbian romance when the story is set three thousand years before Sappho was born? On reflection I think it is. There are sensible arguments against putting modern labels on historical figures (e.g. if you call Alexander the Great bisexual, you might be describing some things about him but missing a lot about how he and his contemporaries understood sexuality). However, I don’t think those apply in the same way to fictional characters, who are at least as much a product of my culture and imagination as of the Neolithic, and probably more. My characters can be lesbians (or bisexual or nonbinary or whatever) if both I and my readers are happy to say so.

See how these choices work out in a novel by reading Between Boat and Shore now. 🙂

Many thanks to Martel Reynolds who discussed these topics with me throughout the writing process. 

God, language, and reality – some questions explored (none answered!)

Since the publication of my book, Telling the Truth about God, some readers have been in touch with me to share their thoughts. One, Gordon Steel, emailed me some interesting questions. These are issues not fully covered in the book, and although they are explored a little in my PhD thesis that’s not very accessible – so with Gordon’s permission I’m taking the opportunity here to consider them in more detail and plainer language.

Gordon:

There is much in your book that I have appreciated… What I wanted to raise with you is what seems to me to be something missing.

My whole attitude to religious thought was transformed years ago by the realisation that all that we say about God or religion is human – following Don Cupitt.

It seems to me that this notion transforms discussion about God. It changes it from ‘What is God like?’ to ‘What is my (or your) image of God?’

The humanness of religious language seems patently obvious to me.

So I am surprised not to have found reference to this in your book (or have I missed it?)

At this stage I replied, briefly, and Gordon looked at the abstract of my thesis and came back with some more questions:

Language arises from human experience. Is this experience internal to us, or is it experience of an external reality?

‘Meaning as use in context’ – I have not read Wittgenstein but does this see meaning as ‘how we use it’ rather than in reference to some ‘reality’?

‘…ways in which religious language is used rather than truth-value…’   Does this mean that the value is in the language rather than the reality that some Friends might suppose it to have?

Rhiannon:

In short: I think that experience arises from the interaction of our awareness with reality, and language is a human creation which both reflects and shapes our experience.

In long:

Let’s start with language. Natural languages are communal creations, which we adjust when we need to (for example, inventing new words when we create new technology – like email – and when we recognise previously unnamed situations – like mansplaining). There are two things to note here. Firstly, language is social and no individual person changes language on their own (anyone can make a different sound, but it’s not a word until someone else understands and uses it). Secondly, people and therefore our languages are constantly interacting with the world around us.

(Okay, sceptics, what we take to be the world around us – but if we turn out to be in the Matrix, my argument will still run because a Matrix-table is still experienced as a table by all the speakers who label it as a table, so I’m going to move on without considering this in detail. If you’re worried about this you can read about Putnam instead.)

On the balance of probability, I do think there’s a real world around us, and when I refer to that traditional object of philosophical contemplation, the table, I do think there’s some actual wood (well, mainly Formica) in front of me. I can see it, I can feel it, I can put my mug down on it – and more the point, when I have a visitor over it they can, too. The things which make it a table, though, are things determined by people. For one thing, by upbringing and habit I speak English, but I could, if less confidently, say bwrdd or โต๊ะ. For another, the category of ‘tables’ is a socially constructed one; the rather low coffee table I happen to be looking at could just as easily be a stool, while in other places in the house some strong storage boxes have been pressed into service as ‘tables’. It’s really an object, but it’s our communal agreement on the word ‘table’ which makes it into that rather than something else.

So far so good, at least as far as readily visible, tangible objects go. It’s fairly easy to see how we extend this to some other, less tangible but observable things – for example, money is socially created, and it has reality while both sides in the transaction are willing to accept the same currency and broadly speaking the same assumptions. The transaction itself makes the money real, enough to measure and put on a graph and ask questions like ‘is GDP falling or rising?’. For some other things, we have socially accepted ways of expressing them which are related to our experiences – Wittgenstein’s examples are often about pain, and the ways we learn to speak and channel a wordless howl of pain into descriptions and images. These aren’t always obvious uses of language: a stabbing pain is not the same as the pain of being stabbed. Nor are these directly comparable with other people (I can invite a visitor to view my table; I can’t invite a visitor to experience my pain). In one sense, pain is an internal experience, but I don’t think I want to say that it’s fully internal if that means that it is only a product of my mind – my body has a big role to play in the experience of pain, and often something which is not my body is involved too. (For example: I stub my toe on the aforementioned table. I consider my pain to be caused by the interaction of my body with another object, and the pain itself to be a real internal experience.)

This gives us ‘meaning as use in context’ – in our society, we have a way of using the word ‘table’ within the English language which enables us to talk about tables in a meaningful way, both generally (“they’re a table-making company”) and specifically (“I bought this table from the British Heart Foundation charity shop”). Context is most visible when it gives away the fact that there are also other potential meanings (“I put the data from the survey into a table so it’s easy to read”).

Where does that leave us with God? On this picture, language about God is always going to be human. Religious experiences – like pain, like love, like that feeling of satisfaction you get when you type a Tweet and it’s exactly on the character count – are internal experiences. That doesn’t mean that they don’t involve interaction with external reality, however. Now, please don’t jump ahead here and take that to be an assertion of the reality of whatever you think God is (or think God isn’t and want to accuse me of thinking God is). All of those experiences involve interaction with a reality which is external to me, but very much internal to the world in which I live.

When I stub my toe on the table, the table is external to me but internal to the world. When I express love for my partner, both she and my expression of love (like buying a present or speaking out loud) are in the world, things of which I have direct experience but not internal to me. The feeling of satisfaction is all mine but Twitter is a feature of the physical, external world. It’s also the case that the language I have available shapes my understanding of the world – I can eat an apple without having the word ‘apple’, but knowing it adds nuance to my experience and helps me to communicate about it. (Other relevant examples: the invention of the term ‘sexual harassment’; the difference between walking in the woods alone and walking in the woods with an expert birdwatcher who can add a name to every flutter).

Within this understanding of language, I think there are (at least) three things you could coherently say about God:

  • the idea of God is a purely social construct, like money, which exists only for as long as someone is using it
  • religious experience tells us that talk about God is a way of expressing something that we feel, like saying ‘ow’ when in pain
  • God is something we interact with, perhaps more like someone else’s mind than a table but part of the world (and, being God, might also be beyond the world)

It’s possible that all of these are right – our idea of God, our talk about God, and actual God might be quite distinct. I think Don Cupitt would go with the first option. I think Wittgenstein probably never made up his mind (hence the difficulty later readers have had in working out what he really thought on this one). I think some excellent Wittgensteinian thinkers have hovered in a creative space between the first two – D. Z. Phillips, for example. I think this view of language tends to discourage putting too much weight on talk about transcendence and going beyond this world (or indeed all sorts of other metaphysical ideas, like mathematical realism): words in this area develop their communal meanings in ways which seem less connected to direct experience and more connected to social needs.

That said, people sometimes expect me to be worried about this stuff. For myself, I think any one of the possibilities above is enough to justify going forward with my own religious practices, of attending Quaker Meeting for Worship and so forth. I find it helpful to think these things through and be pointed back towards the Mystery, seeing that I don’t and can’t prove God but rather sense God experientially and within a faith community, which provides language and practices, which shape that experience.

That being so, “What is God?” is a question which is worth asking – one which can have many useful, interesting, temporary, attempted answers but where ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’ might never add up to ‘the whole truth’. “What is my (or your) image of God?” is an equally good question, which acknowledges the impossibility of the first but opens up space for us to express our ideas, feelings, experiences, etc. I would add another question, which addresses issues touched on in this post: “Which sources has your image of God come from?”

Arbennig: special, distinct, peculiar

Mae gen i ffrind arbennig. I have a special friend.

This is a common enough phrase that you can even buy it on a card. In English, I’m more used to people talking about a best friend (and by people, I mostly mean Brownies – it’s very very important when you’re a nine-year-old girl, and although I enjoy spending time with them I don’t mind that I’m not one any more!). I’m in two minds about whether this claim, Mae gen i ffrind arbennig, is true for me – of my friends, I wouldn’t be able to pick the ‘best’ one, but obviously all of them are special.

I probably wouldn’t call them that to their faces, though. When I was at school, the use of the phrase ‘special needs’ was ingrained enough to have reached the playground, where it rapidly took on many of the connotations of the offensive words it replaced: idiot, retard, and so on. “You’re so special” was distinctly an insult during my childhood. I haven’t been able to find out whether ‘arbennig’ has taken on that meaning in Welsh – although I was able to confirm that it’s used in phrases like anghenion addysgol arbennig, special educational needs. (Language learners gotta love these government websites with a button in the top right to flick back and forth between languages, by the way. I think it makes it easier for me to explore Welsh in a way which would be very difficult, especially alone, with another language.)

In order to find that out, though, I had to wade through several pages of Google results about a restaurant in Cardiff called Arbennig, though. I’ve no idea whether their food is any good but they have made themselves special in terms of page ranking dominance!

Once I got past, though, I was also pleased to discover some other uses of ‘arbennig’: Casgliadau Arbennigspecial collections, often the best part of any library, and Safleoedd o Ddiddordeb Gwyddonol Arbennigsites of special scientific interest. I especially (do you see what I did there?) like the last one because ‘diddordeb‘ looks like it is related to ‘diddorol’ – ‘interesting’ – one of my favourite Welsh words because it’s both fun to say and can be deployed as an answer to so many possible comments!

Queer Quaker theology: abundance as resistance

“Whoever has, will be given more.” (Matthew 25:29)

A little while ago I wrote a post about labels. Afterwards, I thought: how does this affirmation of the need for more and richer labels for all sorts of genders and sexualities fit with the queer theory I use in some of my academic work? The very use of the label ‘queer’ implies a resistance to narrowing down, definition, or precise identification.

In this blog post, I want to argue that the abundance of labels can lead us to a place which is deeply queer. To argue that, I’m going to compare the situation of multiplying gender and sexuality labels with a situation I’ve already written about – the multiplication of names for God among liberal Quakers. Just as having more and more words for the Divine seems to bring Quaker writing back to the same place as Quaker practice – a place of silence and the acknowledgement of mystery – so having more and more words for sexuality and gender might bring our society round to a deeply queer place, a place of resistance to the oppression of pre-determined categories.

The two situations which form the background to this discussion can be quickly summarised as follows, in the form of two observations.

Observation 1: the English language is quickly developing, especially on the internet, a wide range of terms for sexualities and genders which were previously unnamed and hence invisible. Examples include terms like ‘non-binary’, ‘asexual’, ‘cisgendered’, and ‘gray-a’. At first glance, this appears to run completely counter to a previous movement which aimed to unite all sorts of alternative sexualities, and maybe genders, under the term ‘queer’ – queer is not just lesbian, not just gay, not just bi, not just kinky, not just pegging, etc.

Observation 2: modern British Quaker publications about Quakerism often include a disclaimer about the use of the word ‘God’, either offering a list of alternatives or inviting the reader to swap the word for another of their choosing (which presupposes a list of possible acceptable alternatives). These lists typically include words like ‘light’, ‘love’, ‘God’, ‘Spirit’, ‘Divine’, ‘Christ’, ‘Allah’, and ‘Being’. At first glance, this appears to be both the complete opposite of silence, and hopelessly confused, especially when the words are not used as synonyms in other contexts.

In many situations, including their worship, liberal Quakers prefer silence, or the specific forms of speech which create vocal ministry during worship: words which are held in the context of silence. When the situation forces the use of ordinary words – as when someone sits down to write a book about Quakerism, so that they can neither remain silent (by leaving the page blank?) nor assume that the words will be read in the context of silence – the use of a list, whether stated or assumed, allows the author to say something without being bound to connotations of a word, like ‘God’, which can be radically different for those outside the community. (To start thinking about the ways a word’s connotations are affected by its context and use, consider this: the ‘God’ discussed in New Atheist publications has very little in common with the ‘God’ described by Quaker publications.) It often seems that the very act of making a list, of using lots of words, draws attention to the fact that no one word will do. The abundance of words becomes a resistance to words, or to put it another way: in saying too much, Quaker authors are able to come back round to their starting point, not wanting to say anything.

This is not to say that the words are not important, or that we could do without them. They are absolutely vital. You can’t get a reader past their other ideas about ‘God’ without some form of extra words showing how their use of the word is different to yours. This is not a development process in which we can hope one day to skip a step and do without the words, but a way of using language as a tool to point beyond language.

In the case of the development of lots of words for genders and sexualities, we are talking about people rather than God (although perhaps all of the words can also be applied to the Divine!). Any given person will have some which are true for them and some which are false for them, and perhaps also some which are nonsensical to them. Taken as a group, however, the collection of words seems to me to be forming an ever richer picture of humanity as a whole. By adding concepts like ‘demi-sexual’ and ‘homoromantic’ to our vocabulary, we nuance or break down previous categories. (If someone is homosocial and heteroromantic but asexual, are they gay or not?) Just as the list of terms for God breaks down previous assumptions about what God must be like, the development of more terms for people breaks down previous assumptions about the categories people must fit into. In the process, we see one another more clearly: what was previously hidden under the curtain of a single word is revealed as a shining diversity. The abundance of words, even – no, especially – to the point of confusion brings us to the same place of accepting complexity and multiplicity which was previously captured under the ever-broadening umbrella ‘queer’.

The proliferation of terms can be anxiety-inducing. It’s common to worry that all these lists of not-quite-the-same words for God reveal not a theology but a vagueness. It’s also common to be concerned that all these words for subtly different groups of people mean that we can’t unite around anything. However, I am arguing that both are much more productive than this implies. The Quaker use of an abundance of words to return to a place of mystery and the queer use of freshly created words to resist overly broad categories are both revealing and creative. Rather than allowing a few loud voices in society to tell us what ‘God’ must be (and why we shouldn’t believe in ‘Him’) or what gender and sexuality ‘really’ are (and why we should go on behaving in accordance with their rules), we can use new words and plenty of them to overturn these claims.