nullifidian

In the April 23, 2013, Toronto Star (the local daily broadsheet), columnist Royson James, in an article about the possibility of a casino being built in central Toronto, wrote this:

Riding a backlash against centuries of Puritanism and uptight strictures, we’ve turned nullifidian, consumers of everything to the exclusion of nothing.

Ya gotta love newspaper columnists. They are the one place in daily journalism where you get not only considered opinion unburdened by the albatross of faux-impartiality but also decently used twenty-dollar words.

Nullifidian. The context may not give a perfect clue to the meaning. But if you happen to know your Latin roots, you know just what it means. Null, ‘nothing, none’; fid, ‘faith’ (as in fidelity and infidel), from fides (as in bona fides): together, ‘faithless, of no faith, disbelieving, believing in nothing, etc.’ Add connective tissue and an adjectival suffix and you get an eleven-letter, ten-phoneme, five-syllable word with a rhythm right out of Dave Brubeck (accent on the middle syllable), a veritable forest of ascenders and dots in the middle seven letters (bookended by nu and an, phonemically mirrors: /nə/ /ən/) with the twin steeples ll disintegrating into i and i and i with the bent f and bumped d.

So there it is. The church towers ll fall apart into the image of the self i i i and are bent and distorted and we fall out of the righteous quaternity of 4/4 time into the supersaturated metric quincunx. All is relative. We are tossing out rules and instituting an “anything goes” approach. It’s appalling and Sardanapalian. Take away the pillars and everything collapses.

Just the sort of thing I am occasionally accused of. When I point out that a certain “rule” of grammar has no real basis and no utility in communication other than that of excluding and condemning (you’d think we we would grow out of that after our adolescence), I am told I am saying there are no rules and that anything goes and am promulgating the destruction of the language. Which assumes the point at issue: that the “rule” is actually a rule, and a beneficial one. If I say that people need to consider the effect and utility of the rules they follow, I am branded nullifidian, relativist, wallowing fecklessly in the utter degradation of the language.

Funny thing, relativity. Motion is relative and yet we can still speak coherently about it and measure it usefully. Direction is relative and yet we can still find our way around. But somehow if one proclaims relativity of any prescriptive rule one is seen as being a nihilist. I find this view lacking in important understandings.

The equation that Royson James’s paragraph makes is a common one: that faith equals restriction, and openness equals lack of faith. If you are a free thinker, you are an unbeliever, which means you are faithless. Faith is unquestioning acceptance of a set of strictures and structures: have faith in the source that has given them to you. This maps to acceptance of rules, often arbitrary, for language as for other behaviours. In practice, this “faith” becomes enforcement of a set of rules that render a sphere controllable and predictable.

How much faith do you need when things are controlled and predictable? Tell me this: which is a greater act of faith, cultivating a bonsai tree with daily attention or planting an acorn and coming back after twenty years? Driving to work on the same route every day or sailing a ship into uncharted waters? Forcing a language into unchanging conformity or participating in its somewhat guided, somewhat channeled, but never entirely regulated or stifled development over time?

Yes, holding to a dogma is an act of faith; certainly, you are taking it on trust that these principles are valuable and their source reliable. But one does best to choose one’s sources of principles wisely and thoughtfully. And dogma can be a means of minimizing the faith necessary: what faith and trust is there in Procrusteanizing everything into preset categories? Not adhering to a dogma, on the other hand, does not mean lacking in faith; one may still have desiderata, principles, aims, experience, and a faith that this approach will produce good results and that one’s data and reasoning are sufficient. One may even believe in some “greater power” (or what have you) without believing that that greater power has imposed a set of restrictions that we are to enforce so as to limit the possibilities of the world.

So the historical use of the word nullifidian is a bit of question-begging, in that it assumes that if you don’t have faith in a specific religious position you thus have no faith in anything at all. And its association of nullifidianism (or nullifidy, I suppose) with a sybaritic, thelemite position is even more question-begging, because it assumes that if one believes in something it must be rules that prohibit such hedonism – and the converse implication is that if one does not hold truck with wanton oral-retentiveness, one is a person of their particular kind of faith.

All of these observations may seem to have nullified the validity of nullifidian as a word to use anywhere. But no. They have simply unshackled it, or at the very least pulled the drapes open on it. And you may always feel free to say nullifidian, allowing its delicious flow over the tip of your tongue and your teeth and lips: whether or not you believe it when you say it, you can still give it lip service.

3 responses to “nullifidian

  1. I enjoy your blog very much. Words evolve but sometimes I have to wonder if usage trumps correctness. For instance there used to be absolutes, like unique. ..
    http://dcmontreal.wordpress.com/2013/04/27/an-absolute-shame-degrees-of-unique/

  2. Monroe Thomas Clewis

    As opposed to “fullifidian?”

  3. I am so impressed. Wow. I dig your display of grammatical correctness. Bless you dude.

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