My biography of Flannery O’Connor is titled The Terrible Speed of Mercy. I borrowed the phrase from O’Connor’s second novel, The Violent Bear It Away. I was always struck by that odd juxtaposition of terrible and mercy; I chewed on it for about twenty years, never suspecting that I would one day be able to use it as a book title.

The possibility of a terrible mercy obviously has a lot to say about Flannery O’Connor’s understanding of sin and grace and judgment, but it also points up a peculiar pattern in the development of the English language.

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