Short shot #33: the tell-tale but

From a profile of the physician A. Stone Freedberg in the NYT Magazine of December 27 (“The Lives They Lived” issue):

When Freedberg was a boy, [his grandfather] Max contracted a fatal pneumonia. An ambulance came to take him to the hospital. On his way out the door, Max stopped the attendants to speak to the family one last time. He told them that he wouldn’t be coming back but that he had no fear of death — that this was how everyone’s life ended.

Freedberg was an avowed atheist [unlike Max, who was a rabbi], but he nevertheless approached the end of his life with the same sense of tranquillity.

It’s the but, a contrastive connective suggesting that the writer expects that atheists would not face death tranquilly (presumably because they don’t have the comfort that religious belief would provide), and indeed that the writer supposes that the readers share this expectation. A lot packed into that little word.

(In the same issue, in a profile of Alison Des Forges, the word genocidaires, referring to those who perpetrated the 1994 Rwandan genocide. New to me, but immediately understandable. There’s even a Wikipedia entry.)

2 Responses to “Short shot #33: the tell-tale but

  1. johnwcowan Says:

    Nu, I’m inclined to disagree. I’d rather take this but as saying that though being an atheist is maximally contrastive with being a rabbi, both men had something in common that is commonly related to religious faith, this common element being betokened by the word same

  2. The Ridger Says:

    I tend to agree with the reading that atheists should face death in a panic. It’s a very common “but”, I find – even when no rabbis are involved.

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