Teasings

teasing-vs-taunting-bullying

So this Sunday’s GD lesson is Mosiah 7-11. The very first verse of the reading, 7:1, reads as follows:

 And now, it came to pass that after king Mosiah had had continual peace for the space of three years, he was desirous to know concerning the people who went up to dwell in the land of Lehi-Nephi, or in the city of Lehi-Nephi; for his people had heard nothing from them from the time they left the land of Zarahemla; therefore, they wearied him with their teasings. (Emphasis added.)

And you know, that word “teasings” just never felt right to me. I try to imagine Nelson of the Simpsons saying to Bart/King Mosiah: “Remember those people who went back to try to claim the land of Lehi-Nephi? And how they never came back? And for all we know they’re dead? HAH HAH!!!” That simply doesn’t work for me.

The verb “tease” derives from the Old English taesan meaning “pluck, pull –> pull apart comb,” originally used for separating fibers of wool, etc., and in modern English for combing hair.

The sense in which we’re accustomed to using this word is as follows:

Make fun of or attempt to provoke (a person or animal) in a playful way: Brenda teased her father about the powerboat that he bought but seldom used

[no object]: she was just teasing

[with direct speech]: “Think you’re clever, don’t you?” she teased

This is the dominant sense of the word in modern English, and it simply doesn’t work in our Mosiah passage.

But it’s important to grasp the evolution of the word. The original meaning was the one about separating strands of wool or whatever. This led to a figurative use, “irritate by annoying actions.” The joking, playful overlay we’re used to is a developed sense from that earlier, more serious meaning. And to me, the more serious version of the word makes more sense in our passage. The people weren’t playfully kidding King Mosiah about the loss of their people; they were harassing him for not having done anything about it. It wasn’t a laughing matter.

Last time I did a post like this Grant Hardy came by to chastise me for not checking Skousen’s Textual Variants volumes. And he was right. So I took a look to see if Skousen had a comment on this, and indeed he does, at 2:1208. There is no textual variant here, but Skousen comments on it anyway, for as he says “The common modern-day meaning of the verb tease is inappropriate here in Mosiah 7:1 since there seems to be no jesting in these teasings.” Citing the OED, he points out that the earlier meaning of tease did not imply jesting, but “to worry or irritate by persistent action which vexes or annoys.”

He even cites from the OED an example of the plural verbal noun, from Jonathan Swift (1731): “Sir Robert weary’d by Will Pulteney’s teazings.”

So the word “teasings” is not as strangely inappropriate to the context of Mosiah 7:1 as it may seem at first blush to a 21st century English reader.

Comments

  1. Villate says:

    Do people really think that “teasings” in this passage has anything to do with joking? Even as a young person reading the Book of Mormon for the first time (probably age 15 or 16), it never occurred to me that it meant something other than bugging King Mosiah to find out what had happened.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    The number of BoM readers who will take the time and try to figure something like this out, or even just look in a dictionary, is small. We’re too worried about reading quo
    quickly (people tend to set goals like “read five chapters a day” or finish the whole thing in 60 days). So most readers rely on their native grasp of the language and simply don’t stop to try to make sense of this kind of thing,, but just plow on through.

  3. I wanna know why the people doing the teasing didn’t immediately get eaten by bears.

  4. Villate says:

    Kevin, I guess you’re right. I understand why people might think that “goodly” means the same as “good,” but the context here seems pretty obvious to me. Love the Nelson call-out, though. Ha-HAH! Since we’re on about archaic usages, though, what’s your take on Alma 17:37-39? Did Ammon actually chop off people’s arms? I’ve taken “arms” in that story to refer to their weaponry or some type of armor ever since I read the Iliad in high school, but I have been roundly condemned as an apostate over the years for suggesting that Ammon did not dismember those bad Lamanites like a good, red-blooded Nephite warrior.

  5. Coffinberry says:

    I agree that the context makes it pretty obvious to me too… perhaps there’s a gender issue? The older sense survives today in hairstyling. “Teasing” in the sense of back-combing hair to make it stand up more strongly is still a practice even today. It involves pulling a handful of hair one way while pushing backward against the pull using a comb or brush. So back to Mosiah… I guess in reading long ago I intuitively rejected the jesting idea, and went for a push-pull pestering idea. You might want to do a poll.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Joni FTW!

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Villate, interesting take about Ammon and the arms; I’ve never thought about that one before.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Coffinberry, you intuitively went back up the evolutionary development of the word to avoid the jesting meaning so common today; well done.

  9. Clark Goble says:

    Kevin, that’s a great point. It’s one reason why I think the church would be wise to do a minor translation update. Get the NKJV from Oxford that drops archaic words and then do a revision of the Book of Mormon and PoGP that does something similar with the original words in footnotes. It doesn’t need to be too involved and avoids the problems switching to a more radically different translation like the NIV or RSV would.

  10. I have always wondered about non-English translations of the BofM, Are they written in archaic, difficult to understand language or are they in modern French, Spanish, Swahili, etc. If they are written in their modern language, why cannot ours be too? Anyone have the knowledge to enlighten me?

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t think translations into other languages are intentionally archaized, Kent. Since the English is the ur-text, the Church is very resistant to intralingual translations (or paraphrases) into more modern English. One that I like is the Easy To Read Book of Mormon.

  12. John Harrison says:

    Kent,

    In my limited experience non-English translations are easier to understand and getting easier. When the new Spanish and Portuguese translations came out 20 years ago they were not only better translations in general, but they were in relatively modern language and didn’t attempt to mirror the language of 400 year old Bible translations.

  13. Villate, re Ammon and the arms: One of ancient Egypt’s most terrifying military unit was named the army of Amun and they were notorious for having severed the arms (literally) of their enemies at the Battle of Kadesh. Perhaps something to do with the name.