Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Medievalists Use Annoying Words, Too

I was just reading the new Speculum (a journal my wife won't allow me to keep in the house, by the way) on Monday and came across Milton Gatch's review of Mechthild Gretsch's Ælfric and the Cult of Saints in Late Anglo-Saxon England. Now, as readers of How Tradition Works know, Mechthild Gretsch is the medievalist whose work I most admire. Her The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform absolutely changed my scholarly life (and I would be willing to bet good money that I am the only person in the world who has read it four times). So when I got to the part of the review where Gatch is ready to make some criticisms, I was ready to rise in defense of whatever it was that Gretsch had done.

But instead, I found myself in total agreement with Gatch, who objects to the use of the verb "culted" throughout Gretsch's new book. Gatch attributes this usage to Gretsch's being German, and he's wrong about that, but boy is he right that "culted" is a barbarism (though he does not use those words).

When I was in graduate school and reading all the then-current scholarship on the English Benedictine Reform, no one used "culted" as a past-tense verb. But sometime around 2000-2001, it started to show up everywhere. Phrases like "Swithun was culted at Winchester" became commonplace in Anglo-Saxon England and elsewhere. Before this time, people would write something like "a cult of St Swithun was started at Winchester." Now it's "was culted."

In other words, the use of "culted" is a meme, one that has spread rapidly through the ranks of elite Anglo-Saxonists (though thankfully, nowhere else).

I understand desire for shorthand, and I think that "culted" is marginally better than "imbricated" ("imbricated" is a bad metaphor, while "culted" is a bit of insider jargon with only one real meaning). But "culted" is still loathsome. It's ugly to look at, and it works immediately to alienate nearly all readers. It is also unnecessary, as scholars were able to write about the cult of the saints, etc. for a couple hundred years without using "cult" as a verb.

Look, Milton Gatch has read more Anglo-Saxon scholarship than nearly any person alive. When he thinks the use of a word is due to the author's not speaking English as a native language, it's obvious that "culted" isn't helping with communication. I'm all for jargon when it's necessary or even particularly useful, and I love teaching my students to use "hapax legomenon" or "homoeoteleuton" in the appropriate situations, but "culted" is just too foul. Please don't use it any more.


John Cowan said...

Why not start a movement to use "cultured" instead? It's still a barbarism, but less painful.

It's funny that the OED, even as revised in 2004, provides no examples for "cult of the saints", and does not reflect the fact that "cult" in this connection is a translation for dulia, thus avoiding for Anglicans the unsavory pseudo-Roman connotations of good old English worship.

meredith arwen said...

That is horrible, to the point that it took me several seconds to connect "culted" and "the cult started", despite having various saint-cults on the brain for novel-research purposes.

jeniffercox said...

First, I want to say Happy Birthday (tomorrow)! Second, I'd like to say that I really appreciated your post on why students should come to Wheaton. (It's been awhile since I've visited your blog.) You managed to capture all of the reasons that I came to Wheaton and eloquently described my feelings about being an alum. Finally, I have to laugh a bit about this post, because I recall a similar discussion of the use of "grounded" during one of our seminars. I often think fondly of that seminar.

Eileen Joy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eileen Joy said...

Is this for real? The problem, again, with "culted"? First of all, to profess my own ignorance, I have not read Gretsch's book, and for whatever other reasons, did not even know about the term "culted" being in supposed widepsread use in current Anglo-Saxon scholarship. But is it really a "barbarism"? So it's a meme--good observation[!], but . . . .??? Isn't this how language generally gets developed and moves along particular cultural and historical trajectories? The policing of language, as if it were some kind of law [with a capital L], on this blog never ceases to amaze me.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

New words are not necessarily bad. New words that, as Michael says, obscure meaning and whose existence does nothing but more us away from using perfectly good words and idiom that already exist? Not to mention ones that just sound wrong? Those are bad.

John Cowan said...

On second reflection, this "culted" reminds me of "charted", as in "'Heartbreak Hotel' charted in 1956".

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