Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Umpteenth Annual Ralphies

It's that time again.  In accordance with time-honored tradition, and in order to keep my legions of internet fans happy, I offer the latest iteration of the famous Ralphies. Without further ado...

GREATEST SPORTING EVENT OF THE YEAR AND POSSIBLY IN AMERICAN HISTORY:  The Washington Nationals win the World Series.  The last time "my" team won a world championship it was the LA Lakers in 1988 (although there was that 2005  national championship by the Texas Longhorns), so it's been a long wait.  I'm glad I was able to see the Nats play this year (typically, coming back in the bottom of the 9th to beat the Miami Marlins on Aug. 30) and to join in a stadium of people singing "Baby Shark." I was also able to join in the madhouse that was the victory parade.

MOVIES:  How many movies did I see in the theater this year? Three, I think: Avengers Endgame, The Rise of Skywalker, and Little Women.  All were excellent, although the critics didn't like Skywalker.  To spite them, I hereby make it my Movie of the Year.

MOST LOATHSOME POLITICIAN:  Donald Trump could win this category every year, but why give him the satisfaction? Instead the Ralphie goes to Sith Lord Mitch McConnell, who established new lows, even for a Republican, in political cowardice and corruption.

TV:  There is so little of value on TV these days, unless you've shelled out for all the myriad online and premium cable services.  I haven't.  The only one I shell out to (which I won't give free advertising to, but it rhymes with Shamazon) also provided what has to be the funniest (and most poignant) series ever, namely Fleabag.

BEST TRIP:  I traveled more than last year, and each of the trips — to Toronto, Hilton Head (SC), San Diego, and San Jose —had something special about them. But I'm going to go with San Jose because of the presence of a certain grand infant, who was celebrating his first birthday.

MUSIC:  There's always lots of good music, if you look in the right places.  Some of the places I looked turned up tunes like "So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings" (Caroline Polachek), "You're No Good" (the Chromatics), "Dylan Thomas" (Better Oblivion Community Center), "Harmony Hall" (Vampire Weekend), "Stay High" (Brittany Howard), "Peach Fuzz" (Caamp), and no doubt others that I've overlooked.   I'm always on the lookout for some great guitar playing — not shredders or showoffs, but something clear and spare and emotional.  The most beguiling riff I head all year was in "Misheard" (Moaning).  But the Song of the Year was not a new one.  I was late to the Alabama Shakes party and missed a lot, seemingly. However, "Hold On" played on repeat in my head for most of the summer, and has to get the Ralphie.

CONCERTS:  I actually saw three! Lazer Lloyd (excellent axeman), Ex Hex (in Toronto), and the aforementioned Moaning (opening for Ex Hex).  All the artists are highly recommended.

BOOKS:  I always forget what I've read, because I read a lot. But one book stands out.  For fiction I have to give the Ralphie to the tetralogy Book of the Long Sun, by Gene Wolfe (who died this year).  No better writer has worked in the sci-fi idiom.  Non-fiction is a tougher call, and I've got to leave it blank until I think of something. 

All right, you trolls, that's enough for now.  Have a great 2020, the last year of the decade!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Why and When Did Nebuchadnezzar Regain His Reason?

The story of King Nebuchadnezzar's madness is well-known to Bible readers. In Daniel 4, we hear of the king's overweening pride and his humbling at the hands of God, as he loses his faculties and lives like an animal.  His sentence is that he shall live like this "until seven times shall pass."  Whatever be the exact meaning of "seven times" (seven seasons?), it must refer to a definite period of time.

What happens next? According to Dan 4:31 (English 4:34), "When that period was over, I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me.  I blessed the Most High,   and praised and honored the one who lives forever."  This passage seems to clearly state that, first, the king lifted his eyes, then his reason returned, and then he blessed God.

However, I have my doubts.  For one thing, why did the still insane king raise his eyes? It seems most reasonable that he would lift his eyes to heaven as he prepares to bless and praise the Most High. But in that case, his reason must already have returned to him.  Is this not contrary to the wording of the verse?

 It should be noted that the verbal conjugation of "returned" (יתוב) is different than that of "lifted" (נטלת) and "blessed" (ברכת).  Although the prefix-conjugation normally has a future-modal meaning in Biblical Aramaic, sometimes it is used in stories to give background information on the narrated events.  In this case, we might capture this nuance by translating as follows: "I lifted my eyes to heaven — for my reason returned to me — and I blessed the Most High."

Why did Nebuchadnezzar's reason return? It was not because he realized his sin and praised God, as is sometimes stated, but simply because his time of punishment was over, as the text clearly says.  His term of humiliation ("seven times") having passed, his reason returned to him, and the now humbled king gave praise to God.

Thursday, March 07, 2019


In English, "other" and the related "another" have different logical meanings.  Sometimes "another" can mean "another of the same kind," as in "I'll have another cookie," meaning, "I'll have an additional cookie."  But the same words in a different context could have a different meaning.  "I can't eat cookies with nuts, could I have another cookie?", meaning, "Could I have a cookie of a different kind?" The Collins dictionary spells this out here.

Hebrew and Aramaic have the same logical ambiguity in their words for "other, another." Lexicographically, should these different logical meanings form part of a dictionary entry?  We saw above that the Collins dictionary does do this for English.  But Hebrew and Aramaic dictionaries do not divide the senses up in this way.  Since I have written a couple of dictionaries, and am working on another (!), I'm wondering about it.  If a particular sense  is completely context-dependent and not signalled by some grammatical difference, is it part of the "meaning"? If not, does it belong in the entry?

Of course, this is part of the age-old lexicographers' polysemy dilemma. When do different contextual modulations of a word's meaning become identifiable as different senses? And is there a principled way in which to spell out how these different meanings are related? E.g., is one more basic, and the others (!) have emerged from it in some identifiable way (metonymy, metaphor, or the like)?

Or in the case of "other," if there is no clear way in which one sense diachronically presupposes another (!), and no difference in phonological form or morphosyntactic frame, do these senses inhere in the word at all?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps here instead of polysemy we have vagueness (in the technical sense of a word that is just non-specific about certain features).

 In that case, how do we deal with these issues in the dictionary? It might be possible to incorporate the necessary vagueness into the definition itself.  In the case of "another/other" (Heb. אחר, Aramaic אוחרן), we have to start with the fact that the word is anaphoric, that is, it always refers to something already mentioned in the discourse, the antecedent.  What "another/other," etc. means as an adjective is "not the antecedent, but similar to it." In any particular context, either the "not the antecedent" (different) or the "similar to it" (second, additional) part may be highlighted.  The logical freight of "another/other" depends on the meaning of the antecedent, not on any inherent semanteme in the adjective itself.

In Gen 26:22 for instance, we have "And he removed from thence, and digged another well," in context, an additional well; a second token of the same type (well).  In Gen 29:19, we have "And Laban said, It is better that I give her to thee, than that I should give her to another man." Here the antecedent (the man Jacob) is a type with a single token (the man who is Jacob); hence another man does not mean "a second man, in addition to Jacob" but "a different man, who is not Jacob."

Therefore an entry based on a clear semantic understanding should express the word's vagueness, which is modulated by the context.  Semitic dictionaries have done this mainly by simply using European glosses that are themselves vague.  I'm not sure this is the best approach, but I'm still thinking about the best way to approach this.