Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Why I Don't Like the Word

This post is about why I don't like a word. The word is embolism.

The first time I remember hearing it, I was overhearing it, as doctors in a recovery room in a hospital in a city in a state far from home were explaining to my wife how they were going to follow protocol and embolize the internal organ in our little daughter riddled by cancer before they cut it out and replaced it with a donor organ. I was to be the donor. I was also under the influence of morphine after having had my body opened up so the physicians could look at the viability of my being a donor. I should say I was coming out from under the influence, which was - as those of you who've experienced it know - a rather helpless and painful experience of frustration. My frustration - despite my being substantially aristotelian at the time - was also (as I remember it) heightened by the fact that the same doctors were ignoring how hundreds of people had been praying thousands of prayers to a God who just might be willing to hear and also capable of rearranging the unhealthy deadly state of that little girl's organ before they blasted it with chemo, killing not only the disease but also the healthy body part. As my wife remembers it, I blurted something out to the team of experts that sounded like Balaam's donkey. The next day, the chief surgeon decided to abort the operation as planned and to investigate more. (The cancerous organ was never irreversibly embolized. The story is long; the word embolism was never part of the dénouement. And our daughter is healthy today.)

The most recent time I heard this word, it was the explanation for Sharon's death just a few days ago. Lily was there, her midwife and nurse, with her wonderful ob-gyn. One moment the room was full of excitement and joy. Twenty seconds later, Sharon was gone and the team of medical practitioners were struggling to save her baby. (The baby is alive, but his mother - they say - had an amniotic fluid embolism).

I've heard this word in ph.d. rhetoric studies - where we've come to call it in speech something interpolating like a parenthesis in writing - although the English meanings evolved from the Greek are not exactly as Aristotle's meaning in his Rhetoric. There, he quotes someone else, a sophist whom he despises no less, which goes like this: τοῦτο δ’ ἐστίν, ὥσπερ ἔφη Πρόδικος, ὅτε νυστάζοιεν οἱ ἀκροαταί, παρεμβάλλειν [paremballein] <τι> τῆς πεντηκονταδράχμου αὐτοῖς. ὅτι δὲ πρὸς τὸν ἀκροατὴν οὐχ ᾗπερ ὁ ἀκροατής, δῆλον· [This is what Prodicus used to do; whenever his hearers began to nod, he would throw in (παρεμβάλλειν) a dash of his fifty-drachma lecture. But it is clear that one does not speak thus to the hearer qua hearer - J. H. Freese translating.]

Now I read the word in the Numbers 5 translation of the Hebrew into Greek by the Jews living in Alexandria Egypt in the third century B.C.E. They cleverly use the Greek word to join the two divided sections of the whole, the first treating diseased males and fe-males rather equally and the second section treating women suspected of cheating on their husbands (with no treatment of men cheating on their wives or committing the adultery with the wives of other men).

One might argue that these are two different words: παρεμβολῆς [paremboles] in vv 2,3,4 and ἐμβαλεῖ [embalei] in v 17. The first is the "translation" of the Hebrew מחנה [machaneh], which can mean group, or host, or camp, and such. These seems very different from the second Greek word, which is a translation of the Hebrew נתן [nathan], that has more the meaning of "put in" that the Greek seems to have. Well, turns out that nobody had used παρεμβολῆς [paremboles] for "camp" before these Jewish translators came along. They saw that there was a military city, Parembole, near Alexandria that was thrown out there on a peninsula in Egypt as a protection; so they thought it was good enough for that story in Genesis 32:2, "And when Jacob saw them, he said, This [is] God's host [מחנה (machaneh)]: and he called the name of that place Mahanaim [מחנים (Machanayim)]." They wanted to keep the Hebrew wordplay, so in Greek it's εἶπεν δὲ Ιακωβ, ἡνίκα εἶδεν αὐτούς Παρεμβολὴ θεοῦ αὕτη· καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ τόπου ἐκείνου Παρεμβολαί [which, translated by Brenton in English is, "And Jacob said, when he saw them, This is the Camp of God; and he called the name of that place, Encampments."

But I think the translators wanted more wordplay. So they throw in this other word when the priest is throwing temple floor dirt (stuff the adam was made of) into bitter besetting water of this curse on the woman, the alleged adulteress. She's supposed to drink it. (It's much different from what a different priest-like rabbi does some years later, throwing his finger in the dirt and making the accusers of the adulteress drink their own tonic in the silence of their own hidden consciences. But that's another story without that Greek word I don't much like.)

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