Tag Archives: Karen Stollznow

Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic

Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic by Karen Stollznow is a great book despite the lack of an Oxford Comma in the title.

I mention Karen’s book not because it is new (is was published in 2014) but because a) it will be of interest to most of my readers and b) Mike Haubrich and I plan to interview Karen for Ikonokast in the near future, thus lending currency to the volume and topic. (Our interview will be about Karen’s work in skepticism as much as linguistics.)

Note: This book appears to be out of print, so it is hard to get at a reasonable price, but if you look around it can be acquired used for about $15. You can find it on Kindle if you go to the provided link and look laterally on Amazon, and there are used versions.

I have yet to see a review of Language Myths that is satisfying. Most reviewers claim that Stollznow is debunking the idea that language has magic powers. She does not. Rather, she explains the magic power that language actually does have. This does not require belief in anything supernatural. In fact, a careful look at each of the myriad examples of magic and mythical mysterious language the author carefully and richly documents, will leave even the most spiritual or religious reader convinced that natural explanations cover all of the phenomena that have any explanation at all The remaining unexplained things are comfortably rare and do not require an unnatural cause.

Yet, language is magic. As my friend Mark Pagel is fond of noting, language is the powerful magic that allows me to use sound waves to alter the growth and connections of neural cells inside your skull. Stollznow’s exploration is more detailed, of course, and richly culture bound. It is a detailed exploration of actual examples from across a wide range of current and historical story, literature, common usage, and rhetoric.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in language itself, communication, folklore, skepticism, or writing and literary analysis. (Notice how that last sentence LOOKS like it has no Oxford comma, but actually does.)

Karen Stollznow is also the author of God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States, and a book that I have a chapter in, Would You Believe It?: Mysterious Tales From People You’d Least Expect. Karen podcasts here.

Get this book that I have a chapter in!

Karen Stollznow has edited this book: Would You Believe It?: Mysterious Tales From People You’d Least Expect, and you will find my chapter on page 112.

This is a great idea for a book. Suppose Susan Blackmore told you she had an out of body experience? Or that Don Prothero had an alien abduction story for you? Or that I claimed I had once hunted down and captured a ghost? Would you believe it??? Indeed.

You would probably be skeptical if any of the 30+ established skeptics who authored chapters in this book told you that they had a paranormal, psychic, or otherwise impossible experience. But that is what this book is full of: people who don’t believe in any of these things having these very experiences.

In some cases, the teller of the True Tale of Mystery can explain their experience as a natural phenomenon. In other cases, not, but for some reason, they still believe that what happened to them was not paranormal. Why? Well, read the chapters to find out.

Would You Believe It?: Mysterious Tales From People You’d Least Expect has a forward by James Randi, and a few of the chapters are more theory than observation. There is an afterward by James Alcock.

Has anything mysterious ever happened to you?

Experiences of this kind are more common than you think. And they happen to people you’d least expect, even notable scientists and skeptics.

This collection features personal stories and experiences of the mysterious, as told by Banachek, Susan Blackmore, Joe Nickell, Eugenie Scott, Chris French, Ken Feder, George Hrab, Brian Regal, Steve Cuno, Ray Hyman, and many others, with a foreword by James Randi and an afterword by James Alcock. These are tales about a wide range of extraordinary experiences, including ghost and UFO sightings, alien abduction, Bigfoot encounters, faith healing, séances, superstitions, coincidences, demonic possession, out-of-body-experiences, past lives, episodes of missing time and one case where time stood still. You will read about a poltergeist in a bakery, a genius baby, a haunted concert hall, a stone carving that vanishes and reappears mysteriously, a one-time palm reader, and a former Mormon missionary who once believed he healed a woman of a brain tumor.

Indeed, when Karen asked me to write a chapter for the book, and if I had any stories of this kind, several such experiences came to mind. I didn’t mention to her two UFO observations I had made as a kid (one seemingly bogus even at the time although all the adults bought it as real, the other very realistic and still a bit difficult to explain). I did have a more recent, adult-age, UFO experience that I could easily explain that I put on the initial list to consider. Also, having grown up in an old-world style religious household (not American evangelical Christian, but rather, Midlevel demonic possession poltergeisty Central European and Irish Catholic style household), I had a lot of stories handed on to me from relatives, including one harrowing story having to do with Exorcist style levitation, vomiting of green goo, and all that. And, of course, there are those non drug induced time shifting experiences and the pets that can read your mind and all that. I settled on the story about the ghost because it is the best story for the telling.