March 24, 2004

"Under God," Hapax Legomenon

As Bill Poser notes in the previous post, the inclusion of "under God" in the Pledge has long been controversial, but the interpretation of the phrase poses a particular linguistic problem, since as I noted once in a "Fresh Air" piece, the phrase is actually a hapax legomenon in this context.

"Under God" was taken from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, but there it's used as an adverbial: "...this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom."  But in the Pledge, the phrase is used adjectivally, to modify nation. As best I can tell, this is the only context in English where "under God" is used in this way, which leaves its meaning up for grabs. Is it like "under orders," "under a monarch," or "under heaven"? But then  vagueness is probably what commended the phrase in the first place -- what better way to signal the doctrinal neutrality of the state?
Posted by Geoff Nunberg at March 24, 2004 01:54 PM