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Hallo again to all.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word 'chauvinism' as being of French origin, meaning 'an exaggerated, bellicose patriotism and a belief in national superiority and glory'. By legend, there was an ultra-nationalistic French soldier named Nicolas Chauvin. Whether he was real or fictitious, the word incorporated his name, and for a century or more, calling someone a chauvinist was a statement about his fervent patriotic belief in the superiority of his own countryIt's a man's world, eh?. During the second half of the 20th century, the phrase 'male chauvinist pig' appeared in discourse about sexual politics, to describe a person who believed that men were intrinsically superior to women. But that was too many syllables, so it was quickly reduced to just 'chauvinist'. Today no one except linguists and the elderly remembers the original meaning of the word 'chauvinist'; it has been absolutely redefined from the realm of national politics to that of sexual politics. If you were to refer to Nick Griffin as a chauvinist, the listener would instantly assume that you were talking about his relationship to his wife and daughters and not to France or Pakistan.

Words evolve, and the rate of evolution is not uniform amongst speakers of the language around the world. It was a century ago that George Bernard Shaw is reputed to have said that Britain and the USA were 'two countries divided by a common language'. If the evolution of a word's meaning is sufficiently forceful in one place the new meaning will sometimes propagate to others. For example, the word 'gay' was literary slang in the early 20th century, but by midcentury it had become so firmly entrenched in everyday language that its meaning spread to other countries. But British terms like 'bonnet' or 'knickers' or 'jumper' stayed on their own side of the Atlantic. The British term 'mobile phone' has made good inroads into other countries. In the USA people will understand what you mean if you refer to a mobile phone, but will still call their own device a 'cell phone'.

A decade or two or three ago the word 'Christian' changed meaning in the USA. The change was abrupt because it was made intentionally for political purposes. 'Christian' in that country now carries a strong connotation of being fundamentalist and evangelical and politically conservative. Some years ago at a bus stop outside a university near Boston, we overheard this snippet of conversation between two middle-aged men:

'That Melinda. I wonder. Do you think she's even Christian?'

'Nope. She's Catholic.'*

Anglicans Online strives each week to take a perspective that is as centrist and international as we can muster. We love it when readers guess incorrectly the home country of that week's writer, and we pay a lot of attention to cultural differences in language. During our pre-publication discussion of the front page of AO every week, we ask one another 'Is that phrase too country-specific? Can we replace it with a more international term?'

Last week, for the first time in the history of Anglicans Online, we had to conclude that there was not an international term for what we wanted to say, and that we would need to use a country-specific word from the writer's home country. We wonder if you noticed. The writer expressed joy at being 'Episcopalian' rather than 'Anglican', which conveyed the intended meaning but also locked the sentence to a particular geographic region.**

Men at the altarThe word 'Anglican' in the USA has abruptly changed in meaning, and there is not yet an internationally-recognized replacement. If you see a church in the USA with a sign 'The Anglican Church of New Jerusalem', that sign is telling you that the congregation at some point in its history was an Episcopal church but that it has broken away from the US Episcopal Church and is now something else. Some of the schisms occurred a century ago; some of them were a year ago. But the word 'Anglican', in the USA, is now a badge that says 'We are not Episcopal' and to some extent carries the implied subtext 'because unlike them, we are still Christian'.

It is fairly safe to assume that if there is an 'Anglican Church' sign in front of a house of worship in the USA, that its clergy are male, that a same-sex couple would not feel very comfortable there, and that the pews probably contain the 1928 edition of the US Book of Common Prayer. It is not safe to make the reverse assumption. If the sign says 'Episcopal Church', you can't make any assumptions about what you will find inside unless there is also a rainbow flag out front or the priest introduces himself by saying 'Welcome. I'm Father Jones.'

This new American meaning of the word 'Anglican' is not yet in any formal dictionary, and it will probably be at least a decade before lexicographers conclude that this changed meaning is stable and worthy of inclusion in their next editions. We doubt that this new meaning has drifted across any borders yet, and we wonder if it ever will. Saying 'I am an Anglican' in Peoria or Pittsburgh will continue to carry very different meaning than would saying those same words in Port Elizabeth or Port Moresby or Blackpool or Whitehorse.

As long as people use present-tense verbs we think it's probably all OK. If the visitor to Port Elizabeth said 'I was an Anglican' then we would have a different problem.

See you next week. Presumably in, um, er, an Anglican or Episcopal or Church of England parish or something like that.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

30 October 2011

*Let's save for another time the discussion of when the word 'Catholic' started to mean 'Roman Catholic'. We think it was about a century ago.

**We had to twist that sentence into tight knots to avoid revealing whether last week's writer was male or female.

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