Quick quiz: what is a “Samaritan?”

If you answered “a person who selflessly does a good deed,” you are wrong. A Samaritan is simply a person from Samaria, a mountainous region of the Holy Land between Judea and Galilee — more or less what we now call the West Bank of Israel. The ancient Samaritans had a lot in common with the ancient Jews, but they weren’t on the same team, so to speak. Or perhaps it’s better to say they were on the same team (the Abrahams) but were on different shifts.

Put it this way; when the Parable of the Good Samaritan was written in the first century A.D. the idea of a Samaritan doing a good deed for a non-Samaritan (in this case a Jew) was a bit unusual. Those were very politically, culturally, and religiously loaded days in the Holy Land (not unlike today), so there was not a lot of trust between people of different tribes. So one of the key points of the parable is that one should do good deeds for everyone, even those who are “others.”

In that case, the Samaritan was an “other,” and he did a good deed for a Jew. Jesus, himself a Jew, told this parable as a way of illustrating that even those questionable “others” can do good deeds. But the Samaritan was not a “Samaritan” because he was good. It was because he was from Samaria. The fact that he was good made him a good Samaritan, which does not exclude the possibility of there being loads of bad Samaritans.

It’s as if I wrote a parable about a New Yorker doing a good deed for a Quebecer. It would be the Parable of the Good New Yorker. Naturally, that parable would not imply that every New Yorker is good. More importantly, it would not imply that any good person should be referred to as a “New Yorker!”

And yet I see and hear, on a regular basis, people referring to someone who does a good deed as a “Samaritan.” I hear things like “I had a flat tire and a Samaritan came along and helped me fix it,” or “If it wasn’t for that Samaritan I’d still be down that well!” Really? A Samaritan — a person from the Levant, a old biblical guy in a robe and sandals — came along and fixed your tire?

I think not. However, if you said “I had a flat tire and a Good Samaritan came along and helped me fix it,” or “If it wasn’t for that Good Samaritan I’d still be down that well!” then you would not be making an error. People would understand that by “Good Samaritan” you mean someone like the man in the parable of the Good Samaritan. But when you just say “Samaritan,” all you mean is some dude from Samaria!

Parable of the Good New Yorker

21 thoughts on “Samaritans

  1. Language changes. Samaritan is a metonymic take on “Good Samaritan,” which is a metaphor from the New Testament. You might as well complain that “Crown land” doesn’t actually have crowns on it.

  2. Agreed with “Bad Samaritan.”
    I can see your point, Blork, and it’s fun to go back to Wikipedia, once in a while, to look at the origins of sone term. And given your allusions to current events, the idea that a term was originally loaded isn’t devoid of usefulness. We can now think about the fact that the region wasn’t merely in conflict with the Romans. There were internal conflicts. In fact, there have been lots of conflicts among the first Christian groups.
    But to go all prescriptivist on us based on the use of the term “Samaritan” is odd and quaint. Especially since the term has lost its original reference. There isn’t a Samaria anymore. It’s not like saying “New Yorker” but it might be a bit like saying “Bohemian.” Although, as far as I know, Bohemia is still the name of a region of the Czech Republic and it might even be an official European designation. “Prussian” might be a better example, but apart from being metonymically associated with Germany in French literature (although much of Prussia was in present-day Poland), it doesn’t carry much in terms of a denotation based on a category of people defined by their actions. “Bohemian” is a bit rare, nowadays, but I’d say it might be more frequent than “Samaritan,” except when journalists start using it to designate people in a specific event (say, the aftermath of the Earthquake which so affected our sisters and brothers in Haiti). Terms journalists use have a tendency to launch memetic spread. (I kind of wish they could do this with “Brights”…)

    You could do a post about the term “barbarian.” As you surely know, it refers to anyone who doesn’t speak the Greek language. In anthropology, we use it as an example of xenophobia. Same thing with most ethnonyms. Any group is named either something like “Humans” in their own language (with the idea that anybody else isn’t really human) or labeled by another group. The English named by the French («Angles») vs “Inuk” meaning “friend”…
    Sometimes, people recuperate labels. I even heard (but haven’t verified, though it’d be easy) that a very derogatory French term in reference to skin colour is used in Haitian Creole as a word for a person, in general.

    Here, we’re only talking about longterm lexical change. Well-accepted semantic shifts. But language is so much kore dynamic than that! If you do the experience of listening to
    spontaneous informal language twenty years apart, even from the same speaker, you notice that language change doesn’t take two kiloyears.

  3. Ha! I knew the descriptivists would jump all over this!

    I tend to take the middle road on the descriptive/prescriptive argument. Of course language evolves, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to post a few guardians here and there to reel some of it in. In this case (as with some of the other changes that I disagree with) it’s not a matter of resisting evolution; I resist condoning a mistake.

    The mistake is not just the obvious one I’ve stated; I think it’s a mistake to divorce a metaphorical term from its metaphor. When you do that it becomes meaningless.

    The “barbarian” example is actually pretty good, and the hardest one for me to counter. But I’ll say this; our references to that term come from many sources, so it’s not surprising that the term as it stands now has evolved that way. If there were many different references to the goodness of Samaritans, then it would be normal for Samaritans in general to be associated with goodness, and the “good” part would become redundant. But that’s not the case, so the “good” is not redundant.

    Ever since I was a kid I’ve heard people using words incorrectly (I’ve done it plenty of times myself). Taking the descriptive approach holus-bolus essentially means we no longer have to think about what we say, and we don’t have to worry if what we say is not what we mean, because hey, it’s evolution!

    OK, that was unfair, but it’s how I sometimes feel in this argument. Again, I’m middle of the road. There are plenty of cases where the I agree with the descriptive approach, but this isn’t one of them.

  4. As language further (d)evolves with texting and twittering, it’s only a matter of time before we further shortcut to calling all do-gooders, “Sam”.

  5. For all it is worth, I’ve never heard anyone who speaks French refer to “a good Samaritan” by just saying “a Samaritan”. It’s always “un bon samaritain.” Always.

  6. Agreed with Martine, and I checked le Grand Robert, which describes a Samaritain as a Jew of such and such region/sub-group, etc. So that one for French, lol! But I also agree with you — though language does evolve in many and interesting ways, sometimes it’s good to say… “I do not think that word means what you think it means”! ;-)

    I must point out, though, that I never thought the Blork Blog would become my source of Bible-story clarification! :-)

  7. I think an interesting comparison would be the word “Philistine.”

  8. bad samaritan, you’re good!

    I would counter that there is a difference. The origins of “Philistine” (and “Barbarian,” as Alexandre pointed out) are unknown to most people, and those origins are based in xenophobia, as are many ethononyms. The key is, as Alexandre says, that the terms have lost their original references.

    I would argue that “Good Samaritan” has NOT lost its original reference. As Martine and Vieux Bandit have pointed out, nobody in French has dropped the “bon.” But we’re talking about English here, and I would argue that MOST people in English have not dropped the “Good.”

    The parable of the good Samaritan is still a known story, and not just for the religious.

    If the original biblical reference had implied that all Samaritans were good, then it would be legitimate to eventually lose the “good” part as it would be redundant. But we still know the story, and we know it well. It’s a living part of our western culture, even if we don’t always remember the details.

    Thus, I maintain that using “Samaritan” to mean “Good Samaritan” is not just quaint prescriptivism. It’s a mistake!

  9. Yeah, but the majority of people who use the phrase have never, and will never, refer to another Samaritan, literally or metaphorically, besides the “good” one. So it’s not unusual or even wrong to drop the descriptive.

  10. I could tell you a true story, where I got saved from a tricky situation by a Shomronim. To give the story full credit, it would take at least 500 words. It involves tanks, burning tires, bystanders being killed, just another day in the life of a sales guy what. I’ll try to summarize, so it won’t get too boring.

    I was stuck in Nablus with the check points closed down and a flight out of Ben Gurion at 08:00 the next morning. My Philistine friend called his Shomroni friend, we went up Mount Gerizim and came out on the other side of the check point through a special road. Along the way, the guy who was a chain smoking, loud mouth, not as good looking John Goodman look alike, explained to me in a very broken English that Shomroni meant Samaritan. I looked them up later on, quite fascinating people. So for me all Samaritans were good, until I met his brother on a subsequent trip, but this is another story.
    FYI, in case you want to try the short cut, that road is now under surveillance, with a well guarded check point.

    Aren’t people intrinsically good until proven otherwise?

  11. There’s also the issue of the link to history and literature. When you drop the “good” you are de-linking from the parable. “Samaritan” becomes simply a euphemism for “good person” instead of being a biblical/literary reference.

    I don’t like dumbing down our culture.

  12. What? It’s still a reference to the parable, just a contracted one. I mean, if you really wanted to be strict, you could insist that people also refer to chapter and verse whenever they say “Good Samaritan.” Not everything is evidence of “dumbing down.”

  13. Sales Guy, that’s an awesome story! And it points out that while Samaria no longer exists the ethno-cultural group that identifies itself as “Samaritan” DOES still exist. This reinforces my argument against using “Samaritan” as a euphemism.

    And BTW, once I learned the origins of “Philistine,” I stopped using it in the euphemistic way. Not out of political correctness, but out of linguistic correctness.

    (Damn, am I ever sounding like a prescriptivist!)

  14. Blork, what’s missing from your pet peeve is the notion that there’d be a confusion. The reason Philistine, Vandal, Barbarian, Bohemian, and Samaritan are unproblematic is that the semantic shift is pretty much complete. There’s no minimal pair. “Sam” would be an issue, for obvious reasons. But it could well happen. The shift from “gay” as an adjective to “gays” as a noun was originally problematic but if your pet peeve is “nonono, you got it wrong, ‘gay’ is an adjective and homosexuals aren’t particularly joyful,” my guess is you’ll be laughed at. Which may be what you want, but does diminish the reach of your rant.
    In this case, we’re talking about an ancient shift which causes no confusion whatsoever. I’m sure we don’t have to say “pillaging vandal” every time we use that term. And I think historians presenting on Vandals, apart from a joke or two, don’t have much of an issue.
    I’m not antiprescriptivism on principle, if there’s an actual problem with confusion. Or if a group is having a hard time shaking off a label. But I’d encourage prescriptivists to choose their battles.

  15. @Alexandre: if you don’t let him have his pet peeves, he’s going to take it out on me.

    And about the illustration: Ed, you HAVE to do some research to find out what the hell was going on!

  16. I have done some research, and I can’t find any references. Obviously the guy fell down (heart attack?) but there doesn’t seem to be anything on the web about it, except for a few references to this image.

    The image has been removed from Street View, but if you go down the block a few clicks and look back you can still see it. (Click that link and wait a few seconds for Street View to load. Use the + button to zoom in — if you use the mouse to zoom in it will jump to the next frame, which is blacked out.)

    I feel kind of bad now, making a spoof out of the scene. :-/

  17. Most interesting. I hadn’t the slightest clue to the origins of the word. While I always used ‘Good’ to go with ‘Samaritan’, now I’ll always remember this post when I do use it.

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