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Article Specs

Article ID: 14839

VoxAcct: 379710

Section: words

Age Group: Adult

Days Up: 1,033

Times Read: 5,002

RSS Views: 16,559
Coming Out as a Zimmelblob

Author: Fire Lyte
Posted: November 20th. 2011
Times Viewed: 5,002

I was walking around a shopping center the other day when a man in a funny hat came up to me and exclaimed, “You are a GORGEOUS Zimmelblob!” Well, all I heard initially was ‘you are gorgeous’, so I said, “Thank you.” Then, as I was walking away, I turned back around to the man in the funny hat and asked, “What’s a Zimmelblob?” The man regarded me with a pitiful look, as if I’d asked him what a belly button is used for and said, “I think everyone knows what a Zimmelblob is. Zimmelblobs do not walk on four legs, they do not eat rocks, and they do not sleep in mailboxes.”

I stood there, staring at the man in utter confusion. “But…that could be anyone. In fact, that could describe a kangaroo, a lobster, or a DVD of Betty White’s greatest hits.” The man just shook his head and said, “That’s just silly. Of course a lobster isn’t a Zimmelblob. None of those are Zimmelblobs!”

This conversation went back and forth for a good 20 minutes with me posing other examples of potential Zimmelblobs and the man in the funny hat just shooting them down. And every time I was shot down, I asked the man to clarify what a Zimmelblob actually was. “I’d like to know what a Zimmelblob is, ” I told him “since, apparently, I am one.” I continued to get the response that it’s a non-four-legged thing that eschews the practice of eating rocks and doesn’t make its bed in a mailbox.

Later on in the evening, I beat my head against a wall. It was a lot better than trying to hash out what a Zimmelblob actually is.

Words are supposed to mean something. I don’t mean that in some grand philosophical way in which terms are applied to great acts of change or some ethereal discussion of the function of language. I mean everyday, practical, dirty, back-and-forth dialogue. The words we use should have a definition. Why? Because, if they didn’t, humans could not effectively communicate with one another. (And, no, this is not the time to make the argument that, no matter how good the definition, humans may never communicate effectively with one another.)

Though you may immediately have gotten where I’m going with this, I’d like to turn our collective attention to the word ‘pagan.’ More specifically, I’d like to turn our collective attention to the definition of the word ‘pagan.’

If you ask a pagan to define the word ‘pagan, ’ you’ll most likely come across one of these answers:

1) A pejorative that used to mean country dweller and was akin to the word ‘hick’ used to describe folks that lived in the country and practiced the Old Ways, while the folks that lived in the city practiced the New Religion of Christianity.
2) A member of a polytheistic religion.
3) Some long-winded diatribe about how nobody really knows what a pagan is and that it means different things to different people, and - oh by the way - would you like a slice of patchouli granola pie? I picked it fresh this morning.
4) A member of any non-Abrahamic religion.

Sure. Ok. Fine. These definitions are all practical definitions, and they’re all practically crap. Yes. You read that right. Each of these 4 definitions is total bologna. Why? Because, still, none of these four definitions is telling me what a pagan is. It’s either giving me what it’s not, or giving me a vague notion of what it might be.

Don’t believe me? Ok. I’ll show you.

1) The first definition of “used to mean country dweller” does not tell me what a pagan is in the current sense of the word. A definition must be current, as a definition changes over time with the usage and context of the day.
2) The second definition is so vague that it doesn’t tell me anything. The ancient Hebrews were polytheistic. It can be argued that the Christian trinity is an example of polytheism. Hindus, Heathens, and nearly any faith out there can be linked back to a belief in multiple gods. And, I’m sure that you’re not going to find many Christians out there that would say they were pagan.
3) This one is a weak non-definition. It’s a cheap cop out born from a desire not to step on anyone’s toes. It doesn’t tell anybody anything.
4) This is what most people - pagans included - use as a definition for pagan. For many years it was the dictionary’s definition. (Though, Merriam-Webster has since updated their definition to #2 on this list and no longer uses this as the official definition.) It, too, shares many problems with definition #2. I do not believe that a Jainist would say they are pagan, nor would a Taoist, a Rastafarian, or a Zen Buddhist Monk. There are dozens of other faiths in the world that have nothing to do with Abraham (not that he’s not a nice guy and all) , and many, if not all, of them would never say they were pagan.

So, what do we do? We have to have a word.

I know. I’m going to get emails telling me how awful I am, that I’m buying in to the mainstream idea of labeling and defining the indefinable. If that is your thought, I suggest you open that mind up a little bit more and shed some light on the cobwebs. (You may spend the next 12-second dusting them off quickly.) Humans communicate with language. I tell you to pass the potatoes, and you know that doesn’t mean to jump on the table and beat your chest like Tarzan. The understood ‘you’, the words ‘pass’ and ‘potatoes’ all give an indication of what I am hoping to happen.

The Lexical Definition of something is a fancy word for the Dictionary Definition. It is the meaning of the term in common usage. The dictionary definition can, and often does, change with time - as was stated earlier - given the usage by users of the word over time. Lexical definitions are meant to be descriptive. That is, they are supposed to tell you what something is. They are also supposed to be short, to the point, and leave no question as to what one means.

Saying that a pagan is anyone who is a member of a non-Abrahamic religion or a member of a polytheistic religion might begin to lead us in the right direction, but that is like telling someone who asks you how to get to China to ‘go east.’ You might eventually get there, but you might just as easily get stuck in Africa, Russia, Spain, or the next town over. How far is China? Is it due east, or is it perhaps southeast or northeast? Are there longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates that might help? What method of transportation would most efficiently get me to China? Defining the word ‘pagan’ as anyone who isn’t a member of an Abrahamic religion, or is a polytheist, or not choosing to define it at all, is like telling someone that China is a country in the east. It is imprecise, and, thus, is a useless definition in a practical sense.

Luckily, dictionaries and people have a tool available to them called a 'precising definition'. This is used when someone believes the definition of something is too vague to be useful. In Critical Thinking: A Student’s Introduction (Bassham, et al. 2002) , the example is of a movie theater that sells discounted tickets to students. Unfortunately, many people can qualify as students… the 47-year-old taking a night class, the loud-mouthed frat guy. So, the theater uses a precising definition to further qualify that they mean ‘anyone under the age of 18 that is enrolled at a local school.’ Now, we could get into the semantics of what they mean by the word ‘local, ’ but let’s not be petty. If you’re in the area, under 18, and have your student ID, you probably qualify.

One could say that a student is a member of the non-working class, but there are students who work, and it also does not define the age of the person in question. One could say that a student is a pupil, and a pupil is an Old French term for an orphan child or ward. It tells us what it might have been used for in the past, but it doesn’t tell us anything about its use today. See the problem? We have to say what a student is today, right now.

You might say, “But, Fire Lyte, there are so many different people with so many different definitions for ‘pagan.’ It would be wrong or unfair to define the term.” A definition, inherently, excludes everything that the word is not. If I ask you to pass me the fork, you know I mean to leave the spoon and knife alone and pass me only the utensil with the tines used for piercing and eating food. Yes, it excludes the spoon, but the spoon shouldn’t feel bad. It is a spoon. It has its own definition and entry in the dictionary. There is a place for the spoon, but to define the fork, one must exclude the spoon.

Poor spoon.

Some might say, “But, Fire Lyte, we’re such a small group! How could we possibly come together to define our term?" The best estimates we have say that there are about 1-2 million pagans in the world today. There are quite a few other religions in the world that only have that many, or less, adherents, and somehow there are functional definitions for those groups. Want to know what a Rastafarian is? (A group with around 700, 000 members worldwide) Rastafarianism is “a religious movement among black Jamaicans that teaches the eventual redemption of blacks and their return to Africa, employs the ritualistic use of marijuana, forbids the cutting of hair, and venerates Haile Selassie as a god.” (M-W Online) See! Small groups can be defined.

I can hear the argument, “Hey, Fire Lyte! We have a word for a modern pagan. It’s ‘neo-pagan.’” Yeah. Ok. I hear you. And, that might work as a functional word and definition for modern day pagans, except for one problem: the lexical definition for ‘neo-pagan’ is ‘a person who practices a contemporary form of paganism.’ So, we’re right back where we started. Defining a term by another term sometimes works, but only in cases in which that second term is concretely defined and not still milling around in the abstract.

There’s also another problem with using an imprecise definition. We tend to apply it to people or groups whether they ascribe to the common usage of the word or not. I see pagans all the time lumping Hinduism and Shinto and a host of other faiths in with modern paganism. But I don’t ever see Hindus saying that Hinduism is a pagan religion. Hinduism has its own definition. It is the spoon in comparison with the fork. It is an inflicting and imposing of a definition on a person or group that does not fit the common vernacular. Again, to go back to a point I made earlier. We can use the current lexical definition of ‘a polytheist’ to define the term ‘pagan, ’ but I think many of us can agree that is an altogether vague and far too inclusive of an idea.

Perhaps our problem is that we don’t know. We simply are too young, too widespread, or too caught up in being paganer-than-thou to come up with a functional definition. Do you know how Merriam-Webster defines words? They’ll tell you plain as day on their website. It’s usage. They look at a cross-section of reading material and attempt to use the context surrounding the word to derive a current, functional definition. My question is, why is it that we can have a precise, functional, lexical definition for terms like Rastafarianism or Bahai or Unitarian Universalism - or, hell, even Zoroastrianism - but we get a one-line, obtuse definition for the word ‘pagan’?

The answer seems to be that we don’t know. We simply do not know what a ‘pagan’ is in modern context. That’s why many people use the word ‘Wicca’ or ‘Wiccan.’ It’s well-known, and the lexical definition is more or less precise. Though, one might argue that the dictionary is defining ‘neo-pagan’ rather than Wiccan. Merriam-Webster currently defines Wicca as “a religion influenced by pre-Christian beliefs and practices of western Europe that affirms the existence of supernatural power (as magic) and of both male and female deities who inhere in nature and that emphasizes ritual observance of seasonal and life cycles.”

Some people, however, don’t like the term ‘Wiccan.’ Either they have a thing against Gerald Gardner, or they don’t like rules, or they can’t seem to figure out which denomination of Wicca to belong to. The term ‘pagan’ seems to be used for those in the milieu of nature-based beliefs, that have a belief in - and possibly practice - magic, and acknowledge the existence of multiple deities, though they may worship only a select one or few. Paganism might also include a reverence for ancient deities and/or otherwise dead religions, reconstructing and modernizing them. It can be a host of things, but our problem is that we cannot stop fighting over who is and who isn’t to decide what they are or aren’t.

I am not here to propose a definition. But, I am proposing that it might be time we define ourselves. A functional definition allows those who meet us to look us up and know what we are. It defines the term in such a way that we can have discussions of faith without first spending 4 hours arguing back and forth in order to set usable definitions for terms like ‘pagan’ or ‘witch’ so that we can have that discussion of faith. It’s one less weight on our collective shoulders and one less source of in-fighting, which does nothing to advance our cause in the greater community. A functional definition would allow us to confidently self-identify, especially when something like a census or legal matter comes up in which things like religious identity matter. It could be a beacon, a spot where we can all gather around and be a community.

We can be forks, and not question whether or not we’re spoons! We can know what in the world a Zimmelblob actually is, so we know whether to be offended when someone calls us a gorgeous one.

We can stand, staring at the guy in the funny hat all day long, arguing over what a Zimmelblob might and might not be. Or, we can work to define it, peacefully and with a sense of unity. Until then, I will wear my Zimmelblob badge proudly, confident in the idea that it’s a good thing. Make that pretty confident. OK... 25% confident. Ok, he called me gorgeous. What do you want from me? I’m only human.





Footnotes:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definition
http://www.M-W.com
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dictionary_definition
Bassham, Gregory; Irwin, William; Nardone, Henry; Wallace, James M. (2002) . Critical Thinking: A Student's Introduction. New York: McGraw Hill.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_religions#Largest_religions_or_belief_systems_by_number_of_adherents


Copyright: (c) Fire Lyte - 2011 - Inciting A Riot



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