“Avowed”

The New York Times ran a piece about the David Mabus affair (tl;dr version: he’s a mentally-ill troll who’d been sending death threats to people for years, and was finally arrested after enough people complained to the police).

It begins:

Over the years, someone writing as David Mabus made himself known to scientists and avowed atheists across North America in thousands of threatening e-mails and violently profane messages on Twitter.

The phrase “avowed atheists” annoyed me, because I see it a lot. I even twatted about it:

The phrase “avowed atheist” still annoys me, though. When’s the last time someone was an “avowed Baptist”?

Then I realized that with an entire browserful of Internet at my disposal, I could answer that question.

So I ran a Google search on a bunch of phrases of the form “avowed X” and noted how many hits Google found. It turns out that “avowed Baptist” turns up 298 times, and “avowed LDS” comes up 241 times.

But of course that doesn’t tell you much, since there are far more Baptists than Mormons. So I figured I’d calculate an “avowedness factor” by dividing the number of Google hits for “avowed X” by the number of X in the US:

The population numbers come from the American Religious Identification Survey 2008 results where available. For others, I relied on adherents.com’s table of the Top Twenty Religions in the United States, which in turn sites the 2001 ARIS survey.

Finally, I put the whole thing into a spreadsheet that you can go play with.

As you can see, “avowed atheist” eclipses all the other terms. The only others that even register above the noise are associated terms like “agnostic”, “humanist” and “deist”, as well as some of the less popular terms like “scientologist”, “New Age”, “Pagan”, and “Muslim”. (Note that I was just searching for the specific phrase “avowed X“, so the totals include things like “such-and-such is an avowed Scientologist document”, and don’t necessarily refer to people.)

(In the spreadsheet, I also threw in some non-religious terms, like “Democrat”, “feminist”, and “racist”, just for comparison’s sake. But I couldn’t find — or couldn’t be bothered to look up — the size of those populations.

Richard Lederer has written about monogamous words, words that (almost) always appear next to another word: “amok” always goes with “run”, “turpitude” always goes with “moral”, and so on.

From the chart above, I’d say that “avowed” and “atheist” may not be monogamous, but they’re certainly in a serious relationship; and when they have a one-night stand with some other verb, they probably have great make-up sex afterward.

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4 Responses to “Avowed”

  1. Ian says:

    “Avowed agnostic”? That’s a pretty funny one. “Certainly uncertain”?

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    • arensb says:

      Except that “avowed” doesn’t mean “certain” (although even “certain agnostic” isn’t quite as silly a position as one might think); it means “self-confessed“. So if I say someone’s an “avowed socialist”, I’m not expressing my opinion, I’m saying that he calls himself a socialist.

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  2. John Swindle says:

    A couple of days ago, I read somebody’s complaint about the use of the term “gay marriage”. He said when when gay people eat, it’s not called a “gay lunch”, and when they park their cars, it’s not called “gay parking”. I don’t think he meant we shouldn’t use the term, just that we should be aware of how we say things.

    About “avowed’:
    Wiktionary gives these definitions:
    1. openly acknowledged
    2. positively stated
    3. asserted under oath, or vow
    Then it includes links to other sources, which define the word in about the same way.

    I had not encountered the term “monogamous word” before reading this, but I was reminded of a few examples. “Intrepid” is one such, and like others you mentioned, it enjoys the occasional fling behind the back of its mate, “explorer”. Using words in tandem this way tends to alter their meanings over time. So we say of someone who, without remorse, boasts of his indecent views or behavior, that he is an avowed embezzler, or murderer, or atheist.

    I could not find a definition of “avowed” that included this sense of what I have always assumed to be its derogatory nature. But that seems to be the way the word is most often used. “Avowed communist” is an aspersion I remember from the 1950s. “Aspersions”, by the way, may not be married to “cast”, but they are seen together so often, we might assume something is going on.

    The use of “avowed” does seem to add a flavor to whatever noun follows it. But since it is technically not the pejorative I have assumed it to be, and “atheist” is already a loaded term, why not embrace the whole thing? I am an atheist, and saying so makes me an avowed atheist. If they gave out cards, I’d carry one.

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    • arensb says:

      The American Heritage Dictionary, under “avow”, says:

      To acknowledge openly, boldly, and unashamedly; confess: avow guilt.

      so this does seem to have connotations that the activity or condition being avowed is shameful or sinful, unlike a phrase like “self-described”.

      Oh, and I haven’t updated the post above, but I updated the spreadsheet, adding a second sheet and a second chart. There, instead of dividing by the numberof people who are X, I divide by the number of Google hits for the term X.

      That is, I figured that if it’s a measurement of how words are used, then it would make sense to compare words to words, not words to people.

      As you can see from Chart 2, under this measure, “practicing homosexual” leaves everyone else in the dust, with “deist” a distant second, and hardly anyone else even registering.

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