Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

No One Expects the Boy Scout Inquisition!

Posted by Neal on February 22, 2011

This past weekend, Adam’s Cub Scout pack had their annual Blue and Gold Banquet. The event began with the Pledge of Allegiance. As soon as it was over, I started to leave the room to get something I’d left in the car. I’d barely taken a step when the cubmaster said, “Please remain standing.”

I stopped and remained standing, wondering what for. On the stage, three adult scouting people that I didn’t recognize were sitting around a drum. They began to chant lots of vowels and W’s while beating the drum. I gathered that I was supposed to trust that they were chanting some sacred and meaningful Native American chant, the kind of thing that you find in the muddled, mixed-up Briticized-Asian-Indian/American-Indian folklore that’s supposed to serve as a foundation for Cub Scouts. It might not have even been in a Native American language, for all I knew. Even if it was, I doubt the three guys chanting it knew anything at all about it. If an actual speaker of whatever language it was had been there, they probably wouldn’t have recognized it. They probably would have laughed, or been insulted. In fact, that’s how I feel whenever the scout leaders start breaking out any kind of Native American stuff: What would an actual Native American say if they saw us? Even if the words or traditions are accurately represented, I think it’s silly to pretend to understand and accept as your own the values of a culture or cultures you haven’t grown up with, and especially one that your own people spent so many years trying to eradicate.

Those were some of my thoughts as the chanting went on and on, and I kept suppressing the urge to look at my watch. How long was this thing supposed to last, anyway? Why should I “remain standing” for this pretentious, phoney-baloney performance whose significance no one had even bothered to explain?

Finally, though, it was over, and I made for the door. But one of the leadership committee members stopped me. I’m the pack treasurer, and she needed me to write a check. A check for $25, for those three guys who had just performed for us. What, they charged us money for that? We hired them to waste those five minutes of our time? They must have voted to do that at that one committee meeting I missed.

Well, enough about that. The highlight of the evening was the “crossing over” of the older Webelos Scouts to officially become Boy Scouts. Adam himself is now a Webelos Scout, and will do his crossing over next year. This year he’s been learning the Boy Scout motto, slogan, law, and oath. The oath (which is in English!) goes like this:

On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my Country and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.

The way the line breaks are given, and the way it’s punctuated, the Boy Scout Oath seems to have three main parts after On my honor, I will do my best, and in fact, much is made of this three-part structure. The three fingers held upright in the Boy Scout Sign are supposed to represent the three parts of the oath. But now I know why I found the three parts of this oath troublesome to keep straight during my two years of scouting as a kid: There are four parts, not three!

Actually, when you hear the oath spoken, it sounds at first as if there are only going to be two parts. First there’s to do my duty to God and my country, an infinitival phrase. Then there’s an and, signaling (usually) that the next item is the last one in the current coordination. That next item is another infinitival phrase: to obey the Scout Law. So we’re done, right? I will do my best (1) to do my duty, and (2) to obey the Scout Law.

Not so fast! Here comes some more! It’s a third infinitival phrase: to help other people at all times. And finally, here comes the fourth infinitival phrase, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight. This fourth item doesn’t sound like it’s going to be the final one, because unlike Item #2, this one isn’t introduced with an and. That’s fine in and of itself, because poetic or otherwise flowery language sometimes uses asyndeton (i.e. coordination without conjunctions), but it’s still a little weird to use a conjunction to join Items #1 and #2 in the list and not use one before the last item.

The bottom line, though, is that this is a list of four items: four infinitival verb phrases, all adjuncts to do my best. If you want to package the first and second promises into one, then what you want to do is change to obey to just obey. Then you’ll have a coordination of two VPs headed by the plain form of the verb: do my duty to God and my country, and obey the Scout Law. They’re bundled together as a single infinitival phrase by to. Oh, and you might want to put an and before the last infinitival phrase, but that’s not a requirement. Diagrammed, the improved oath would look like this:

Alternatively, instead of rephrasing their oath, the Boy Scouts of America could change their sign for one that more accurately reflects the structure of the current oath:


22 Responses to “No One Expects the Boy Scout Inquisition!”

  1. Mark said

    The Scout sign/salute is international, and in most places the Promise doesn’t include the fourth item. For example, the UK Promise is “On my honour, I promise that I will do my best to do my duty to [God] and to the Queen, to help other people and to keep the Scout law”. This is roughly the same as the original promise, and these three parts are what the Scout sign represents.

  2. Alex G. said

    Funny post. I recently tried to read “The Jungle Book”, which is where a lot of the Cub Scout mythology comes from, and found it insanely dull. The animals just sit around arguing what animal law is for 90% of the book. Very British Empire, I guess?

    Off-topic and being pedantic for the sake of it: isn’t “Webelos Scout” redundant, in the same way “ATM Machine” is?

    • Neal said

      You raise a good point. I was remembering the other post I did about scouting (linked to in this post), in which I wrote about the acronym WeBeLoS not being a plural; the -S at the end was not a plural marker, but stood for Scout. Therefore, the reasoning went, one such scout is not a “webelo”. What is he, then? BSA advises Webelos scout, but now we have the redundant acronym expansion problem you mention. Add to all this the fact that Webelos is a recently created word that we’re supposed to treat like a tribal name, and you have in sum a stupidly created name.

  3. That’s the same oath our cub scout pack takes, and I hadn’t noticed that before! Hmm. Maybe BOA should hire you to go through the handbooks…

  4. lynneguist said

    Not on the linguistic aspect (for which, thanks), but I’m completely with you on Native American-ish things in Euro/American rituals. It’s even worse, I think, in Europe, where people aren’t as aware of Native Americans as real, living people with various cultural/ethnic roots. I had to give up on my beloved massage therapist when he moved to the therapy rooms in a shop (this one, I dare you to read it!) based around this kind of cultural (mis)appropriation. That shop just gives me the heebie-jeebies. (Elsewhere on the website it tells me that I’d have my massage in “a safe, well cleansed and high vibrational space”. eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!) Anything that uses spiritual/religious identity as a front for consumerism is just icky.

    OK, non-linguistic rant accomplished. Feel free to delete if too off-topic…

  5. Robert Whitehead said

    The full-hand sign, as photographed, is the sign for Venturers (ages 14 to 21). The three-fingered sign illustrates the Three Duties of Scouting: Duty to God and Country; Duty to Others; and Duty to Self.

    Personally, I think moving the phrase “and to obey the Scout Law” to the end of the Oath makes better linguistic sense; it also parallels the Cub Scout Promise.

  6. The Ridger said

    It’s an implicit equation of the Scout Law with “God and Country”.

    But then, my family was never Scout-ish. We were Campfire and Gray-Y Indian Guides, both more explicitly American Indian than that, which is mostly Kiplingesque, right?

    • Neal said

      Some Kiplingesque stuff, like calling parents/leaders Akelas, and having Tiger Scouts, and having one kind of leader training called BALOO. But a lot of American Indian stuff (whose authenticity I can’t vouch for) mixed in, too.

  7. The Ridger said

    Two more thoughts: they may have been singing a perfectly authentic chant. In many Plains cultures, those aren’t in any language anybody understands, including the people singing them. Also, to defend Camp Fire, at least in my band we had to know our tribe – some of the beads were for actual research and stuff. But still, it is all part of romanticizing what you destroyed (sort of like Europeans carrying on about how Africans have to save their megafauna, perhaps).

  8. Glen said

    I agree with your attitude toward all the faux Native American rituals. But I want to add that I dislike the term “Native American.” Since I was born here, I, too, am a native American. Of course, “American Indian” was never literally correct, either, but at least it had the advantage of a well-established history and meaning. And the “American” prefix assured that no one was going to confuse an American Indian with an Indian from the subcontinent. If they were going to replace the older term with a fancy new politically correct term, they should have chosen one that didn’t create an even worse ambiguity. In an article many years ago, William Safire said “aboriginal American” or “American aborigine” would have been the most accurate phrase.

    • Glen said

      Also, I didn’t mean for the “they” in my final sentence to refer to American Indians. I don’t know whether actual American Indians were involved in coining the phrase “Native American.” I meant “they” to mean whoever was responsible for inventing the new term.

    • P Whitman said

      I seem to have a vague recollection that your sister got a teacher angry at her in grammar school one time when she, like you,insisted that she was a native American because she was born in America. The teacher could not deal with the audacity of someone claiming to be native to a place in which he (in that case, she) was born. I wonder if the politically correct speech police would call someone a Native American if he was born to American Indian parents while they were living abroad.

      • The Ridger said

        Gosh. Don’t the capital letters signal a different usage? Not to mention stress?

        Aren’t Canadians and Mexicans “native Americans” too, then?

  9. Jay said

    The incorporation of Indian, I don’t like the term Native American much either, culture into the BSA is a task that most groups undertake with delicate care AND the permission or endorsement of the tribes that they emulate. In our council, the songs sung around the drum are legally the property of the tribes that wrote them, some were written as late as the 1990’s, but are “gifted” in writing to the local OA chapter. OA stands for Order of the Arrow, the honor society of scouting, the members of which are tasked to perform two functions: service, in the form of service projects where facilities are built and maintained for scout camps and other nonprofit organizations, and to preserve and promote Native culture.

    These kids practice for hours a week. They participate in powwows alongside actual natives and in competitions judged by the tribes who write the songs or traditionally perform the dances. They are not committing crimes against these tribes. They are paying homage to them. It is no different than kids who dance folclorico, sing opera, or partake in the asian club in high school.

    Simply because you are ignorant of what is going on when they sing, does not mean that these guys haven’t taken painstaking measures to be accurate with their costumes, drumming, song, or dance. In fact, it is the greatest shame for them if they are caught with regalia that is not period, tribe, or region appropriate OF if they sing songs incorrectly.

    These kids are not ugly americans on an unwelcomed foray into another culture; they are ambassadors.

    Soap box complete. I hated it too. I had your same thought and can understand why a Cub parent would have it. Spend some time with the ceremonialists in your lodge when your boys is old enough, you’ll see how much they try and how much involvement they have with the tribes they emulate. What happens when your little scouts says “I want to be on the ceremony team!”?

    • Ellen K. said

      Jay, Seems to me that India gets priority in use of the word “Indian”. Thus, from what I’ve read in this thread, seems to me that “The incorporation of Indian culture into the BSA” should only be used if talking about the culture of India, since India is part of the picture here. When talking about American culture, some other word besides unmodfied “Indian” is needed.

      I don’t at all mind the term “Indian” being applied to people and peoples from the Americas who have no connection to India. But in some contexts, that’s not appropriate. This is one of them.

      • The Ridger said

        Yeah. If you’re not going to say Native American for whatever reason you may have, you can’t go back to plain “Indian”. You gotta say American Indian or Amerindian.

      • P Whitman said

        I don’t suppose you’d consider “injun” or “redskin” as valid substitutes?

      • The Ridger said


        Your literalness in insisting that “native American” means only any person born here means you *should* accept that “Indian” means someone born in India.

        So I have to assume you’re being annoying.

      • Neal said

        @The Ridger:
        You assume right. That’s my dad for you! This is the guy who on more than one occasion played “Gotcha!” with colleagues by working the word niggardly into a report, years before the Washington, D.C. incident.

  10. Catanea said

    First Nations?

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