Agnostic (non-theological)

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Tue Dec 7 02:03:13 UTC 2010

I probably should have added that I don't see anything "incorrect" about
it either and the grumbling by the Houston writer is just another
example of the Recency Illusion. As for my only tracking the usage back
as far as the 1980s, unfortunately, that's the entirety of my English
speaking experience. In no way was I implying any sort of refocusing in
the 1980s--just merely citing my own experience (yes, purely anecdotal,
I know).

As for indifference, the example I am thinking of has nothing to do with
the business world (and business was the context of the original
post--context to which I did not subscribe in mine): "Have you decided
on what to request for the luncheon, chicken or swordfish?" "I am
agnostic on the issue. Just pick one." If you would like, I can give you
names and numbers of two people whom I know to have been using the
phrase for well over 20 years in just this kind of context--sarcastic,
to be sure, but accurate nonetheless. This does not preclude other,
perhaps more common, uses, such as being skeptical or--the more
traditional, I suppose, given the etymology--undecided.

This does not speak directly the original question, that of
hyphenated-agnostics. (And, speaking of which, has anyone noted this
particular usage of "hyphenated", e.g., "hyphenated-Americans",
"hyphenated nationalities", "hyphenated holidays"--e.g.,
"Hanukkah-Christmas", etc.?)


PS: hyphenated-Americans:

The hyphenated American: the hidden injuries of culture
John Papajohn - 1999 - 148 pages - Preview
This book is designed to provide therapists with important insights in
treating "hyphenated Americans," who are the grandchildren (third
generation) of the original immigrants.

The color of words: an encyclopaedic dictionary of ethnic bias in ... -
Page 113
Philip Herbst - 1997 - 280 pages - Preview
hyphenated American. An American, or US citizen, whose family origins
are outside the United States, especially an immigrant around the turn
of the nineteenth century; based on the use of the hyphen in the name...

Not that this is just in recent usage (note the definition in the last
> First of all, may I make my credentials clear? I belong to that
> unhappy group of men, more unhappy than you may think, of which the
> Congressman who has spoken is one; I belong to those who have been
> called " hyphenated-Americans." I looked up the word hyphenated in
> Webster's dictionary, where it has been, leading an existence of
> peaceful obscurity ever since that book became the catechism of the
> world, and I found that it means " something united by hyphens," and
> the word hyphen, coming from the Greek, means " something which is
> united, bound together, held;" so that which has been the symbol of
> marriage to us, has suddenly got the sinister meaning of divorce and
> bears the same relation to patriotism that adultery does to married life.
> Now I want to plead guilty to being a hyphenated American according to
> Webster but not according to Roosevelt. (Laughter and applause.) That
> I was born in a foreign country, subject to a monarch, I could., for
> certain reasons, not avoid. As soon as I discovered my deplorable
> mistake, I did the one thing which millions of my people did before
> me, I emigrated to this country, which has been a beacon to all of us.
> It admitted me and my kind not only to its struggle, its labor, to the
> increasement of its wealth, but to its inner spiritual privileges, and
> no matter what America has done in the past or what she may do in
> these unhappy days, what she has done for us binds us hyphenates to
> her for better and for worse. (Applause.) In spite of the fact that I
> did not have a drop of American blood in my veins when I came here 28
> years ago, to-night if you should analyze my blood---and I am willing
> to give the last drop of it to prove this---you would not find any
> other blood than American blood there. (Applause.)

Same author also here:
> Living as we are, at a time when we have lost faith in one another's
> intellectual integrity, it is as difficult to speak clearly and
> dispassionately as it is to listen patiently. Both processes become
> doubly difficult, if the speaker belongs to that class of citizens
> upon whom a famous phrase-maker has bestowed the now malodorous title,
> " Hyphenated Americans."
> The word "hyphenated " has led a very honourable and innocent
> existence in the ample bosom of Webster's dictionary ever since that
> volume became the longer catechism of a large portion of the
> Englishspeaking world ; and, according to that authority, it means "
> something which is united by hyphens." The hyphen itself, which boasts
> of Greek lineage, means, in that classic language, " under one, into
> one, or together." Even where it is used to separate two words it
> indicates that they belong together, although they have a distinct
> origin. Evidently the aforementioned phrase-maker permitted his mood
> to influence his definition of the hyphen, with the result that the
> short, very innocent and proper dash has by brooding over it become an
> elongated, damnable damn. So that which had the same significance as
> the ring at a wedding ceremony has suddenly become the symbol of
> divorce, and is being given the same place in the sphere of patriotism
> that adultery has in married life.

The rest of the text largely follows as above.

Edward Steiner was neither alone nor the first:
The New York Times Current History. The European War. Volume 5.
October-December 1915 [1915]
> Theodore Roosevelt, speaking on the evening of Aug. 25, 1915. on the
> drill plain of the United States Military Instruction Camp at
> Plattsburg, N. Y., denounced the hyphenated American, the professional
> pacifist, the poltroon, the "college sissy" and the man with "a mean
> soul." Later he gave out for publication a statement in which he said
> Americans should stand by the Presiden, but only so far as he was
> right, and spoke of "elocution as a substitute for action."
> ...
> THIS NATION'S NEEDS Colonel Roosevelt's speech follows in full:
> ...
> As for the professional pacifists and the poltroons and college
> sissies who organize peace-at-any-price societies, and the mere
> money-getters and mere moneyspenders, they should be made to
> understand that they have got to render whatever service the country
> demands. They must be made to submit to training in doing their duty.
> Then if, in the event of war, they prove unfit to fight, at any rate
> they can be made to dig trenches and kitchen sinks, or do whatever
> else a debauch of indulgence in professional pacificism has left them
> fit to do. Both the professional pacifists and the professional
> hyphenated American need to be taught that it is not for them to
> decide the conditions under which they will fight. They will fight
> whoever the nation decides to fight, and whenever the nation deems a
> war necessary.
> Camps like this are the best possible antidotes to hyphenated
> Americanism. The worst thing that could befall this country would be
> to have the American nation become a tangle of jangling nationalities,
> a knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, and
> French-Americans. If divided in such fashion, we shall most certainly
> fall. We can stand as a nation only if we are genuinely united.
> The events of the past year have shown us that in any crisis the
> hyphenated American is an active force against America, an active
> force for wrongdoing. The effort to hoist two flags on the same
> flagpole always means that one flag is hoisted underneath, and the
> hyphenated American invariably hoists the flag of the United States
> underneath. We must all be Americans and nothing else. You in this
> camp include men of every creed and every national origin---Jew and
> Gentile, Catholic and Protestant, men of English and Irish, German and
> French, Slavonic and Latin, and Scandinavian descent. But you are all
> Americans, and nothing else. You have only one nationality. You
> acknowledge but one country. You are loyal to only one flag.
The Ohio Magazine. March 1907
[Editorial] Hyphenated Americans
> There is no longer an Anglo-Saxon type in America, if there ever was
> one worth mentioning; and, therefore, there can be no occasion for
> other distinctions applied to the descendants of other races.
> The hyphenated American ought to be abolished. The word "American" is
> broad enough and significant enough to include all who dwell beneath
> the Stars and Stripes, and the hyphenated individual is an abomination.
The Deseret Weekly. July 6, 1889
Letter from Junius. June 24, 1889
> The /Daily News /speaks of the Cronin case as follows:
> "A fresh illustration of the vice of hyphenated American citizenship
> is afforded by the protest of the 'British - American Association,'
> directed at the President and Secretary of State for the appointment
> of Patrick Egan to the post of United States minister to Chili. Not
> that the appointment does not call for protest and denunciation; it
> was, on the contrary, one wholly unfit to be made. But it should be
> protested against and denounced by American citizens from the
> standpoint of American citizenship, pure and simple. The
> 'British-American' standpoint from which to criticise the national
> affairs of this country is as foreign and out of place as Is the
> 'Irish-American' or 'GermanAmerican.'

Although the contextual sentiment in the last clip is the same as in the
others, the reference is not so much to "hyphenated American", but to
"hyphenated American citizenship".

On 12/6/2010 7:58 PM, Laurence Horn wrote:
> At 7:16 PM -0500 12/6/10, Victor Steinbok wrote:
>> If they just noticed that this meaning is "creeping into the vocabulary
>> of American business people over the past year" they are very late to
>> the party. The use "I am agnostic on this issue" to mean "I don't
>> care/am indifferent" has been in normal "intellectual" use at least
>> since I was in college in the 1980s. Perhaps the business audience is
>> late in discovering this usage, but it certainly has not happened just
>> over the past two years.
>>      VS-)
> cf. OED s.v. agnostic:
> 2. A person who is unpersuaded by or uncommitted to a particular
> point of view; a sceptic. Also: person of indeterminate ideology or
> conviction; an equivocator.
> 1885 Western Druggist 15 Dec. 359/2 Judge Chipman is clearly an
> agnostic on the subject of pills. 1909 Westm. Gaz. 16 Apr. 7/3 On
> this question of a preferential tariff, Mr. Mayhew had no hesitation
> in confessing himself an agnostic.
> 1921 J. E. MERCER Alchemy I. v. 61 As regards alchemy, he was an
> agnostic. On the one hand, he would not venture to set bounds to the
> possible in nature; on the other hand, he could not yield assent.
> Perhaps not quite "indifferent", more like "undecided" or of course
> "skeptical", but clearly non-theological.  Not sure what makes the
> highlighted use "incorrect".
> On 12/6/2010 4:15 PM, Federico Escobar wrote:
>>> ... The word even drew this criticism from
>>> a Houston newspaper just last year (it's stored in the COCA): "This is an
>>> incorrect use of the word 'agnostic' that I have noted creeping into the
>>> vocabulary of American business people over the past year or so. Especially
>>> among individuals in the financial services industry, the word is being used
>>> to mean 'indifferent,' as I think Immelt intended it to mean in his usage.
>>> In business circles today, the word has become one of those buzz words that
>>> people like to use."

The American Dialect Society -

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