on the other hand

One of my favorite things about studying other languages is coming across words that don’t translate neatly and directly. I’m fascinated by the fact that people who speak different languages approach the world with such different tools for making sense of it. Sometimes I find a word or phrase that works so much better in a particular moment than a similar wording in English that it becomes a part of my inner monolog, even though I cannot use it when speaking to others.

Of all my linguistic borrowings, I think the one that changed me the most is “men/de”. It’s borrowed from Ancient Greek and the way I was taught to translate it is as “on the one hand… on the other hand…” Our way of saying it in English is so clunky and metaphorical. It makes it seem as if this particular relationship of two things to each other is unusual or exceptional. I love the idea that the Ancient Greeks may have seen this relationship as being as basic as if/then or either/or. When I learned this word-pair, men/de, it legitimized my seeing the relationship all around me. I knew I was in good company.

As a teacher, I’ve found that my love of the men/de dynamic is a good litmus test for whether I am the right teacher for a student. I think I’ve driven a few students crazy with my frequent “on the other hand”s. For the students who really like me as a teacher (on the other hand!) this is one of their favorite things about me. If you want clear, absolute, unequivocal answers, then you probably want to find another teacher. If (on the other hand!) you want a teacher who seeks to comprehend and communicate an infinitely complex, often seemingly illogical and multifaceted truth about the world, then maybe you’d like my classes. I’ve been thinking about it because the other day a former student told me that one of the things she enjoyed most about my teaching was that I “always talked about magic and science as if they are the same thing.” And they are! Just men/de.

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