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Thomas Jefferson and Amphibolies

picture of amphiboly sign

Some things do not seem to go together. Or if they are put together, the result is humorous, as in the case of the signs on the right. With the beginning of the 112th Congress, there is much anticipation of what our Congress critters will try to accomplish. As I contemplated what to post today and found a list of quotations of Thomas Jefferson in my files, I wondered what he would think of what our nation has become and is becoming. As I looked at the wisdom of Jefferson and knowing his close ties to the other founding fathers of our nation, I did a little looking around online and found a final quotation that was quite interesting. On to the quotations....

John Kennedy said in his address at a dinner for Nobel Prize Winners of the Western Hemisphere on April 29, 1962, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

The quotations of Thomas Jefferson below could prove his point.

"A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned — this is the sum of good government."

"When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe."

"The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not."

"It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world."

"I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them."

"My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government."

"No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms."

"The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government."

"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

In light of the present financial difficulties, it's interesting to read what Thomas Jefferson said in 1802, "I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered."

I found the following quotation from Jefferson interesting because, just this week, I received from a reader a list of amphibolies. This quotation from Jefferson will serve to tie my two trains of thought together, without a crash, I hope:

In reference to his philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to John Adams stating:

"We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led...."

Amphibolies are syntactically ambiguous, meaning you can read them in more than one way. They occur in all kinds of places. Here are some from every day conversations:

Young men and women. (Are the women young?)

Last night I caught a prowler in my pyjamas. (Which of us was in my pj's?)

Teenagers shouldn't be allowed to drive. It's getting too dangerous on the streets.

No food is better than our food.

(Professor to student, on receiving a fifty-page term paper): "I shall waste no time reading it."

Eat our curry. You won't get better!

Some people seem to have to specialize in amphibolies when they write recommendations.

I am pleased to say that this candidate is a former colleague of mine.

He's an unbelievable worker.

All in all, I cannot say enough good things about this candidate or recommend her too highly.

Church bulletin bloopers often result from amphibologies:

Eight new choir robes are currently needed, due to the addition of several new members and to the deterioration of some older ones.

Don't let worry kill you — let the church help.

A new loudspeaker system has been installed in the church. It was given by one of our members in honor of his wife.

Classified ads are a great source of amphibologies:

Used cars for sale: Why go elsewhere and be cheated? Come here first!

FOR SALE: Car driven by elderly lady with new body and spare tire.

DOG FOR SALE. Eats anything. Especially fond of children.

And then, of course, there are headlines:

Farmer Bill Dies in House

Man captured by police while running naked through the park

Volunteers Needed to Help Torture Survivors

College Students Turning to Vegetables

Miners refuse to work after death

Hospital sued by seven foot doctors


What are your thoughts on the Jefferson quotations? Thomas Jefferson seemed fairly unambiguous to me. Have you ever heard of the word amphiboly before?


"Trying to live the Christian life is useless. Christ lives it through us." - John Dodd

=^..^= =^..^=

Give me ambiguity or give me something else.

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12 Comments on “Thomas Jefferson and Amphibolies”

  1. #1 Theresa Beach
    on Jan 6th, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Very funny. Our favorite is getting a gift of food from a not-so-skillful or clean cook and saying “pie like that doesn’t last long around our house!”

    Rob adds: That’s a great one, Theresa! 😀

  2. #2 Ron
    on Jan 6th, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Personally I applaud Jefferson and his wisdom about what a government should be but sadly Mark Twain has best stated what we are allowing our government to become.

    “The mania for giving the Government power to meddle with the private affairs of cities or citizens is likely to cause endless trouble, through the rivaly of schools and creeds that are anxious to obtain official recognition, and there is great danger that our people will lose our independence of thought and action which is the cause of much of our greatness, and sink into the helplessness of the Frenchman or German who expects his government to feed him when hungry, clothe him when naked, to prescribe when his child may be born and when he may die, and, in fine, to regulate every act of humanity from the cradle to the tomb, including the manner in which he may seek future admission to paradise.”

    Rob adds: Good quotation, Ron. Thanks for adding it.

  3. #3 Dave
    on Jan 6th, 2011 at 10:32 am

    Amphiboly is a new one on me (and automatic spellcheck in Google Chrome highlights it as a misspelled word.)

    Thanks for the Word of the Day.

    Rob adds: No problem, Dave. I had to endure the same thing in Chrome as I prepared the post, but the word is for real.

  4. #4 Melanie
    on Jan 6th, 2011 at 11:23 am

    One of our local TV stations had this headline on their website Monday: “Auburn High School officials seek answers on gym roof.”

    Rob adds: You gotta love it, Melanie! I’d love to see them up there looking for answers. 😀

  5. #5 Vikki
    on Jan 6th, 2011 at 11:26 am

    Bulletin addition:

    For those of you with young children, and didn’t know it, a nursery is provided for all services.

    Rob adds: Thanks, Vikki!

  6. #6 Caroline
    on Jan 6th, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    one that popped into my head while i was reading doesn’t make a lot of sense when it’s written, but when you say it it’s a bit confusing at times… “time to eat, people!” we always joke about which kid we are going to eat tonight and stuff like that. it’s a family joke. but when someone is yelling it across the house, sometimes you wonder if you really want to go to the table to find out what really is for supper. 😛

    Rob adds: I have a whole battery of those, Caroline, and you’re right that they come across better spoken than written. You put in a pause in a wrong place, changing the meaning. One of my favorites is “She’s a trouble – shoot ‘er!” (Rather than “she’s a troubleshooter.) 😀

  7. #7 Marilyn
    on Jan 6th, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    Growing up we had a lot of “dutchy” family sayings. One that stands out: “See the cupboard Daddy made for Mama hanging on the wall.”

    Rob adds: That reminds me of some Pennsylvania Dutch sentences I’ve heard, all of which have similar constructions — “He pitched the horse over the fence some hay,” or “She tossed Grandpa down the stairs the newspaper,” or “We threw Grandma off the train a kiss.”

  8. #8 Carrie
    on Jan 6th, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    The Jefferson quotes are very sobering. We’re in trouble! I enjoyed the amphibolies a lot — they’re so “you.” And no, I’d never heard the word before.

    Rob adds: Those quotations are sobering indeed, Carrie.

  9. #9 Connie
    on Jan 6th, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    The term “amphibolies” is a new one for me, but not the concept, I’m afraid…I used to tell students that my office was on the “old faculty wing” until I realized what that said about me. I was in my thirties at the time. Once I got into my fifties, I let students construe that any way they wanted!

    Rob adds: I have always used that expression, Connie, but I’ve never had an office down there. I think a lot of our students think we’re old, and they have been thinking that since we were in our thirties. If only they knew! 🙂

  10. #10 Michael
    on Jan 6th, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    As for Thomas Jefferson, he unfortunately literally did cut out everything in the Bible except for the words of Jesus. There were a few exceptions to this, but basically if it didn’t pass the test of human reason then Jefferson cut it out of the Bible. He read from his “version” of the Bible every night but was not getting the whole counsel of God. Sadly, he was among many of the Founders who talked about God but probably didn’t know Him personally.

    Rob adds: Thanks for your perspective as a history teacher, Michael.

  11. #11 Peter
    on Jan 8th, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    It’s amazing how much wisdom God gives to men, who are likely unsaved, like Jefferson. We need God’s grace to recognize truth wherever we find it. Thanks for the post, Rob.

    Rob adds: Thanks for your comment, Peter. All truth is God’s truth, even when it’s couched in the words of people who don’t know they are expressing God’s truth.

  12. #12 Thomas
    on Jan 9th, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    It’s always quite disheartening to read the words of people we consider wise and knowledgeable when they point out our doom (when viewed in a modern light.) I prefer to keep my head up and remember that it is in our power to be part of the solution to impending problems. About a year ago I had to read an article that was titled something to the effect of “Who is in charge of motivation.” It was an article about leadership within the military and the answer was “You are.” It is important to always remember that we can accomplish all through the glory of God.

    Rob adds: Thanks for your comment, Thomas. Thank you for *your* part in being part of the solution by serving our great country. We do need to take words of wisdom to heart, though, and do what we can to keep things from going in the wrong direction. You’re right that it’s all about God’s glory.