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There is no wittier, more amiable or more astute word maven than Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Safire.
For many people, the first item on the agenda for Sunday morning is to sit down and read Safire's "On Language" column in The New York Times Magazine, then to compose a "Gotcha" letter to the Times. Each of his books on language is a classic, to be read, re-read and fought over. Safire is the beloved, slightly crotchety guru of contemporary vocabulary, speech, ...
There is no wittier, more amiable or more astute word maven than Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Safire.
For many people, the first item on the agenda for Sunday morning is to sit down and read Safire's "On Language" column in The New York Times Magazine, then to compose a "Gotcha" letter to the Times. Each of his books on language is a classic, to be read, re-read and fought over. Safire is the beloved, slightly crotchety guru of contemporary vocabulary, speech, language, usage and writing, as close as we are likely to get to a modern Samuel Johnson. Fans, critics and fellow language mavens eagerly await his books on language. This one is no exception.
William Safire has written the weekly New York Times Magazine column "On Language" since 1979. His observations on grammar, usage and etymology have led to the publication of fourteen "word books" and have made him the most widely read writer on the English language today. The subjects for his columns come from his insights into the current political scene, as well as from technology, entertainment and life in general. Known for his delight in catching people (especially politicians) who misuse words, he is not above tackling his own linguistic gaffes. Safire examines and comments on language trends and traces the origins of everyday words, phrases and clichés to their source. Scholarly, entertaining, lively and thoughtful, Safire's pointed commentaries on popular language and culture are at once provocative and enlightening.
Want the 411 on what's phat and what's skeevy? Here's the "straight dope" on everything from "fast-track legislation" to "the Full Monty," with deft and well-directed potshots at those who criticize, twist the usage of or misunderstand the meaning of such classic examples of American idiom as "grow'd like Topsy," "and the horse you rode in on," "drop a dime" (on someone), "go figure" and hundreds more, together with sharp, witty and passionately opinionated letters from both ordinary readers and equally irate or puzzled celebrities who have been unable to resist picking up a pen to put Mr. Safire in his place or to offer detailed criticism, additional examples or amusing anecdotes.
No Uncertain Terms is a boisterous and brilliant look at the oddities and foibles of our language. Not only "a blast and a half," but wise, clever and illuminating, it is a book that Mencken would have loved and that should be on the desk (or at the bedside) of everyone who shares Mr. Safire's profound love of the English language and his penchant for asking, "Where does that come from?"
This new collection is a joy that will spark the interest of language lovers everywhere.
TRACKING THE FAST TRACK
To be revealed before your very eyes is the anatomy of an "On Language" column. You will discover its impetus, its motive, its little research tricks, its blinding flashes of lexicographic insight and the way the writer, straining to show how language illuminates The Meaning of Life, settles for the meaning of a word.
1. Glom onto a vogue word just as it passes its peak.
"White House Finds 'Fast Track' Too Slippery" was the Washington Post headline over a story by Peter Baker. His lead: "Attention White House speechwriters: The term fast track is no longer in vogue." As the drive for free-trade legislation began, the phrase of choice was "Renewal of Traditional Trading Authority."
Just as many of you were getting your engines steamed up to take the fast track, your track gets renamed. Why?
"Fast-track legislation" made its burst for fame in the mid-70s as Congress gave the President a right that stretched to twenty years to negotiate trade treaties with other nations without having to face amendments back home; as a result, subsequent treaties would be ratified or turned down, all-er-nuthin'. Robert Cassidy, a lawyer who helped draft the Trade Act of 1974, recalls the adjective surfacing toward the end of the Tokyo Round in the late 70s; it did not appear in legislation until 1988.
When presidential authority to zip a treaty through expired, a Republican Congress was not so eager to hand that power back to Democrat Clinton. That's the reason White House wordmeisters derailed the use of fast track (too hasty-sounding) in favor of the solid, stodgy, nothing-new-here "Renewal of Traditional Trading Authority," as if George Washington had been born with the old fast track in his crib.
2. Involve the reader.
Here is a postcard from a slum dweller in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, with an incomprehensible scrawl for a name asking: "What's with fast track? Whatever happened to 'life in the fast lane'?"
Now our linguistic train begins to leave the station, and we
3. Follow the usage trail.
The fast lane comes from auto racing. The trusty Oxford English Dictionary, supplemented and on CD-ROM, has a 1966 citation from Thomas Henry Wisdom's High Performance Driving: "One is frustrated on a motorway by the driver ahead in the fast lane (if only he understood it is the overtaking lane)."
How did the term get popularized in its metaphorically broadened form? A 1972 novel by Douglas Rutherford was titled Clear the Fast Lane, but that was still about auto racing. Then, in 1976, a rock group named the Eagles put out an album, Hotel California, that included the single "Life in the Fast Lane" by Joe Walsh, Don Henley and Glenn Frey.
"They knew all the right people/They took all the right pills/They threw outrageous parties/They paid heavenly bills/There were lines on the mirror, lines on her face/She pretended not to notice she was caught up in the race...." The chorus: "Life in the fast lane/Surely make you lose your mind...."
Since that song, the fast lane has had overtones of the drug culture and impending disaster, a speeded-up, sinister, modern version of Shakespeare's "primrose path of dalliance."
At this point, the language columnist thinks he has come to the fundament of it all, fulfilling his obligation to
4. Satisfy the slavering etymological urge in roots-deprived readers.
We have seen the OED make clear that the derivation is from highway driving. In Britain, the fast lane is the overtaking lane; in the United States, it is usually officially called the "passing lane." And as fast lane was being adopted, it spawned, or influenced, fast track.
Not so fast. The phrase fast track has a long history in horse racing, to mean "dry, conducive to speed." On the other hand, if it has been raining, the wet track is described as "slow," and the touts race about urging you to put your money on a "mudder," a horse that digs slogging. Count on some reader to find a metaphoric extension of fast track in a Jane Austen or Henry James novel.
Nor is that the only untapped root. Soon the vast legion of railroad buffs will check in with yards of lore about fast railroad tracks, where expresses roar past with whistles in the night.
I remember Richard Nixon using fast track in 1964, after he moved to New York City following his defeat for California governor. He told The New York Times a year later: "New York is a place where you can't slow down — a fast track. Any person tends to vegetate unless he is moving on a fast track."
And so the column falls together, requiring the writer only to
5. Leave with a snapper, or sometimes a peroration.
When next you hear of Congress disputing the president's bid for fast-track authority, think of the well-mentored business executives and political loners on the rise, following the racing drivers careening around the speedways, following the jockeys booting their mounts home on a sunny day, following John Luther (Casey) Jones, the hero engineer, slamming on the brakes and giving up his life to save his passengers from death on the fast track.
Copyright © 2003 by The Cobbett Corporation
The legal columnist Bruce Fein of The Washington Times, attacking the attacker-attackers who have been blasting his friend Ken Starr, expressed astonishment at "mass-media gullibility in peddling bogus portraits of the Whitewater independent counsel sold by myrmidons of President Clinton."
What's a myrmidon? The poet Homer, often caught nodding but now probably shaking his head at the Clintonian odyssey, would point us to the Myrmidones, an Achaean race in Thessaly, Greece, who fought under Achilles in the Trojan War. They assumed their ancestor to be the issue of the mating of Zeus with Eurymedusa, a woman wooed by the god when he took the shape of an ant. (Some wags suggest that this may have been the origin of "ants in the pants.")
An alternative mythic source is the changing of ants into men by Zeus in answer to the prayers of King Aeacus, who had lost his army to the plague. But the metaphoric intent is the same, describing a race of antlike men, and the meaning of myrmidon, which should not be capitalized in its extended meaning, is "slavish follower; subordinate who obeys the orders of his leader without mercy."
The Greek word was introduced into American politics by Alexander Hamilton in his efforts to block Aaron Burr from becoming president in 1800. Hamilton wrote to Gouverneur Morris that Burr, to accomplish his end, "must lean upon unprincipled men, and will continue to adhere to the myrmidons who have hitherto surrounded him."
One man's myrmidon, however, is another man's die-hard.
In South Africa, an organization that hands out free condoms to prostitutes calls itself the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat).
In Chicago, an antidrug outfit calls itself Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity (Crack).
Serious business should eschew jazzy acronyms. Time for Citizens Militant on Nomenclature (C'MON).
The word adventurer has been through a half-millennium of exciting times.
Disrepute was its cradle. The Latin advenir meant "come to," as in "come to pass; arrive, happen," and a vestige lingers in gambling lingo as "betting on the come" in the hope that what will come next will enable the gambling adventurer to win. Adventure meant "coming by chance; the luck of the draw."
Applied to a person, adventurer meant "gamester," what we would now call "gambler." Accordingly, an English ordinance in 1474 decreed that the royal household would bar the "swearer, brawler, backbyter" and "adventorer." Five centuries ago the adventorer was a fit companion for the secretive backbyter, the calumniator who whispered his slanders, stabbing reputations in the back.
Gambling and war combined as soldiers of fortune bet their lives on their livelihood; a 1555 usage derided "our adventurers, that serve withoute wages," supported only by their plunder. Just seven years before that, Edward Hall in his Chronicle provided the etymology: "He gave them a Pennon of St. George and bade them, Adventure (of whiche they were called Adventurers)." Most soldiers of fortune were self-glorified brigands; to be called an adventurer was to be insulted.
Then the pejorative word had a run of good luck. John Milton, in his 1667 Paradise Lost, wrote of "the Heav'n-banished host" of fallen angels awaiting the return of their satanic leader "now expecting/Each hour their great adventurer from the search/Of foreign worlds." (Though devilish, Lucifer was "great.") Meanwhile, a commercial company was founded in Antwerp and chartered in England called the Merchant Adventurers, in the sense of "enterprise," and led in the exploration and colonization of North America. The hazard to be undertaken was no longer a time-wasting game but a dangerous journey, an exploration for riches or a moral crusade. Jonathan Swift wrote in his Tale of a Tub (1704) "to encourage all aspiring adventurers."
But then it was applied to Prince Charles Edward Stuart in the pretender's desperate insurrection of 1745; his sobriquet was "the Young Adventurer." Then adventuring became an -ism and lost even more respect. An English review in 1843 lumped together "Concubinage, Socialism and Adventurism," scorning all three as evidence of social decline. The Oxford English Dictionary defined it as "the principles and practice of an adventurer or adventuress; defiance of the ordinary canons of social decorum." An adventuress, especially, was not just a kept woman but was stigmatized as "loose."
Worse, adventurism was taken up by politics to define the most dangerous form of policy. Russian Communists in the 1920s called it avantyruizm, and Lenin considered it so deviationist as to border on revisionism. Britain's Harold Nicolson, in his 1932 Public Faces, deplored the way the public "had ousted the Churchill government on a charge of adventurism." In 1957, the Observer wrote, "Of the three official accusations against Marshal Zhukov, that of 'adventurism' appears to be based on no evidence whatsoever." Under the Communists, it was not merely the practice of a rash, reckless, precipitate or impetuous policy; it was a crime.
Today, an adventurer is no longer a person to be feared. The word has reasserted the romantic, courageous quality that the poet Keats, in "Endymion," gave it: "Adventuresome, I send/My herald thought into a wilderness." Today, to be adventuresome is to be "bold, daring," taking risks without a connotation of impetuosity or imprudence. Foolhardy — having the hardiness of a fool — is no longer automatically attached to today's adventurers. The battered old word that gambled on the come to make its comeback has at last arrived.
"They used to wear that stuff, y'know, back in the day," says one teenager.
"It's not just phat," observes another. "It's da bomb."
"Jiggy," the first agrees. "But the way she wears it is all that. Musta cost a scrillion."
Welcome to the evanescent village of teenage slang, land of fleeting meanings and laid-back superlatives. In the interest of transgenerational interaction, here is a translation of some recent usages, which by the time they get to me are probably on the way out.
All that means "conceited." It is a shortening of all that and a bag of chips, with the emphasis on the and. The rhythm is similar to the ancient pretty please with a cherry on top, but the reference is to fast-food excess, as if to complain "too much." Although the Los Angeles Times Magazine wrote of Leonardo DiCaprio that "Hollywood's newest heartthrob is all that and a bag of chips," the primary meaning is not "overpowering" but "stuck up."
Back in the day is an updating of "in olden times." To teenagers this can reach back six months to a year. "My students use back in the day to impart a nostalgic feel," reports Marcia Tanner, a teacher in Michigan. "It seems to apply to anything that happened prior to their own involvement, as far back as last season." Reporting from Woodstock, New York, James Cobb wrote in The New York Times that "Eric Halpern, 21, a student at Rockland Community College, shouted, 'That is phat!' when he spotted the new Beetle, a reintroduced Volkswagen, at a filling station." Though some have postulated the origin of phat as an acronym for "pretty hips and thighs" or even more lascivious constructions, the word is more likely a deliberate misspelling of fat, which has for centuries had a slang meaning of "rich," as in "fat and happy."
"Veejay Day for 4,000 Jiggy Souls" headlined The Washington Post over a story about MTV tryouts for video jockeys, many of whom were transfixed by Will Smith's rendition of "Gettin' Jiggy wit It." The writer Michael Colton noted that jiggy, like mangy, means "cool, funky, kind of fly." It also has a sense of "nervous, crazed." The etymology is uncertain: In From Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang, Clarence Major defines jig as "a dance" and jigaboo, from the Bantu for "slavish," as a racist slur aimed at dark-skinned African Americans. Jiggy could also be related to the verb "to jiggle."
Da bomb blows your mind and the world up. And scrillion is easy. It means "a gazillion gazillion."
In the teenage world your definition of all that is wrong. At least in my little corner of the world, all that means ALL THAT! I understand teenage slang is hard to decipher, so I'll try my best to explain expressions. All that, used in the context of: that guy is all that and a bag of chips, means he is hot, cute, fine and a bag of chips (meaning he is Extra fine, hot 1/2, in other words, this guy is really cute!)
Phat means cool. Wow that's phat, whoa that's cool. My friends and I never use the word jiggy except when we're listening to Will Smith. Da bomb is another expression for, hey, that is the coolest; hey, that is da bomb!!! Means it blows all other things compared to it away, too cool to be true. I have never heard the word scrillion, but I will be sure to because if that is what grown-ups think we say, well then I better fill out their expectations.
Words some of us really do say: teenyboppers — girls who have pictures of teenage heartthrobs like Leo [Leonardo DiCaprio — Ed.] in their room, go to Hanson concerts, sing Spice Girls songs during class, sit on each other's laps, and constantly wear flares and tank tops; granola — people who are not in touch with the 90s (hippies, thespians to the extreme); corn flakes — people who are "flaky."
San Rafael, California
Phat started in the world of graffiti. Phat was actually a style of writing where the letters look like they've been inflated close to the point of bursting. Creative spelling has emerged as an integral part of the hip-hop culture, aided by the early 80s abbreviations (or whatever U call them) used in song titles by the artist formerly known as Prince.
Little Rock, Arkansas
"It depends on how you define alone," President Clinton told the grand jury. At another point he said, "It depends on what the meaning of the word is is."
Some readers and viewers, including Democratic congressional leaders, found this "legalistic parsing" off-putting. To construe words and tenses so narrowly, they felt, was trickily misleading, deliberately deceptive or even perjurious. Those of us in the language dodge, on the other hand, were delighted to see someone demonstrating the glories of terminological exactitude.
To millions of schoolchildren, the word tense meant only how you felt before a pop quiz. Now its grammatical sense comes into its newsworthy own with what is is.
Asked if he had (past tense) a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the President replied under oath and later to interviewers, "There's no sexual relationship," with that elided "s" capable of being construed as is or was. Unless asked afterward, "Was there ever" (past tense) or "Has there been" (past perfect), he could say that he was telling the literal truth — that no relationship was taking place at that moment.
The present third-person singular of the verb to be comes from the Latin esse, as in Bishop George Berkeley's esse est percipi, "to be is to be perceived." It's a short jump from esse to is. Mr. Clinton's formulation of "what is is" lends itself to metaphysical discussions about being and essence, and will surely be the title of tracts about virtual reality in the age of image.
Since so much depends on how we define alone, let's take a crack at it. The word is an odd combination of all and one; to say "all alone" is to be redundant. The original meaning is "wholly one" — that is, "unaccompanied; absolutely by oneself" — as in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar when Brutus says, "Good countrymen, let me depart alone." A seeming oxymoron is alone together, which is what was asked of Mr. Clinton. In the Paula Jones deposition, he said he did not remember being alone with Ms. Lewinsky; in his grand-jury testimony, he admitted nine occasions when they were together unobserved by others. His secretary, Betty Currie, gave the meaning a stretch when she said, "The President, for all intents and purposes, is never alone....There's always somebody around him." In current usage, alone with means "unobserved by a third party."
Euphemism entered the testimony at least twice, once deceptively, once in a kindly way. In answering a question about what a prosecutor called "phone sex," Mr. Clinton admitted to "inappropriate sexual banter."
The etymology of banter is a mystery. Jonathan Swift, in the introduction to his Tale of a Tub, wrote in 1710 that this bit of slang "was first borrowed from the bullies in White Friars, then fell among the footmen, and at last retired to the pedants." Originally used to mean "raillery, ridicule," it softened in time to a sense of "good-humored teasing" or "joking dialogue, merry jesting." It never had, and does not now have, a connotation of sex talk.
The gentling quality of euphemism came in reference to Ms. Lewinsky's report of Mr. Clinton's denial of an affair with another White House aide. The President was quoted as referring to the other woman as small-breasted. A generation ago, the lack of an impressive bosom was often derided as flat-chested; the current use, as indicated in the testimony, is both more anatomically accurate and less cruel and pejorative.
Mr. Clinton's sensitivity to the nuance of language was exhibited in his answer to questions about an episode at a White House gate in which a Secret Service officer revealed to Ms. Lewinsky that another woman was in the Oval Office with the President. A prosecutor asked, "Weren't you irate?" The President responded, "What I remember was being upset."
Irate is rooted in the Latin irasci, "to be angry," which also spawned ire and irascible. At the low end of irate's meaning is "wrathful" and at the high end is "incensed," one stop short of "enraged."
But Mr. Clinton, who knew his reaction had already been the subject of testimony by his aides, did not want to admit to anger that could be interpreted as leading to a threat to fire an agent. Hence his admission only to being upset, from the Middle English upsetten, originally meaning "toppled, overturned," but which in this modern extension of the metaphor means "disturbed," more worried or annoyed than angered or irate. A person who is irate strikes fear into others; one who is upset evokes sympathy from them.
The President used a similar term to accuse his accusers of "trying to set me up and trick me." A prosecutor countered by asking if he thought he had the right to commit perjury "because you think the case was a political case or a setup."
The slang term had its origin in 1880 regarding free drinks, and later as the ice-and-soda fixings that needed only a shot of booze to turn into a highball. The entrapment sense (made famous by the Washington mayor Marion Barry's cry, "The bitch set me up!" which soon appeared on T-shirts in the nation's capital) appears closely associated with boxing. In 1926, setups were defined in Hearst's International as "has-beens or never-wases who get paid to stand up just long enough to be knocked out." A further development of the idea — to make an opponent vulnerable to a knockout blow — was expressed by the former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey in 1950: "If you can land solidly with a straight left or with a left hook, you'll generally knock your opponent off balance, at least, and 'set him up' for a potshot with your right."
The extended metaphor of this fighting image, now meaning "to entrap or ensnare," was the sense used by both witness and prosecutor in the historic Clinton testimony.
"The singular verb to be comes from the Latin esse...." This is simply not true. Related to esse — true; sort of a first cousin once removed. Latin est, Germanic ist, Slavonic yest, and Sanskrit asti, all originated in the same (to us unknown) Indo-European root.
Our is came to England with the Angles and Saxons from North Germany. The low German and Dutch is is identical to ours, and was perfectly good English long before William the Conqueror imported the Latin and French version: est.
John Foster Leich
Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut
Bill — First, you say that the present perfect form has there been is a past perfect. You will of course recognize a real past perfect in sentences such as "Had it already started snowing when you left the house?" Then you say that the English word is "comes from Latin esse." None of the forms of English be come from anything Latin. Is is not a descendant of esse; rather the s of is is a distant cousin of the first s of the Latin infinitive esse, the second s is a verb root that occurred in the prehistoric Indo-European antecedents of English am, is, are, and of the infinitive and non-perfect tense forms of the Latin counterpart of be; the remainder of the paradigms of both be and esse developed out of forms of other verbs: one of them giving rise to be, been, and the perfect tenses (fui, etc.) of Latin esse, and one of them giving rise to was, were.
Professor James D. McCawley
Department of Linguistics
University of Chicago
In a smirking swipe at the use of what is is by President Clinton, a language maven noted that has there been was in the past perfect tense.
As Lise Nazarenko, a lecturer in English at the University of Vienna, noted: "Has there been is not in the past perfect tense, but rather in the present perfect tense. Past perfect would be had there been."
Perfect, in its most familiar sense, means "flawless"; in an earlier sense, it meant "complete." That sense of "finished" is what we use in grammar: a verb form expressing an action that is complete at the time of speaking or at the time spoken of. And since has is present and had is past, "has there been" is, as the entire Gotcha! Gang has gleefully pointed out, in the present perfect tense.
James Carville, the best-selling author and keen debater who is President Clinton's most unwavering loyalist, is writing a book for Simon & Schuster about a group he calls "the President's enemies," foremost among them prosecutor Ken Starr. The Louisianan whose sobriquet is "the Ragin' Cajun" has chosen a tentative title:...And the Horse You Rode In On. That title is intended to strike a note of defiance. As Thomas Bowdler might expurgate it, "Be off with you and, for emphasis, take with you whatever brought you to this point." As the ellipsis indicates, the obscene beginning of the line is cut: The missing words can be any of a variety of contemptuous imprecations, none of which is suitable for book titles or family newspapers. But because the concluding trope is so widely known — and its origin such a mystery to students of English as a foreign language — the burden of explication falls to the linguistic mavenim.
The country-music songwriters D. Rock, C. Blake and B. Fischer titled their 1989 ditty "You and the Horse (You Rode In On)." A year later the group called Soul Asylum used the phrase as an album title, and a variant was the title of a 1993 mystery novel by Martha Grimes. A 1992 self-help paperback by Bill Wear used it in a subtitle: Recovering from Divorce: And the Horse You Rode In On, presumably expressing the confrontational attitude of an offended former spouse.
The first use in fictional dialogue that I can find is in George V. Higgins's 1972 classic hard-boiled novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
"I first heard it when I was driving a truck for Coca-Cola," recalls Mr. Higgins, whose most recent novel is A Change of Gravity. "It must have been about the summer of 1960." The late 50s appears to be the time of the phrase's genesis; Michael Seidman, editor of Charles Durden's 1976 No Bugles, No Drums, another novel using the entire line, remembers the insult he heard growing up in the Bronx in that post-Korean War era: "...and the white horse you rode in on and all your relatives in Brooklyn."
The key word is in. "The horse he rode on," without the necessary in to conjure the image of a scene, is an ordinary phrase that can be found in use as far back as Shakespeare. ("Some hilding fellow, that had stolen the horse he rode on," with hilding meaning "bent downward, twisted waywardly aside.") But rode in on suggests a startling entrance.
A clue to the term's origin is immortalized in the halls of the Treasury Department in Washington. In the background of the oil painting that hangs as the official portrait of Donald Regan, who served as Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan Administration, can be found a book titled And the Horse You Rode In On. No other book title is visible. In their 1987 book, Showdown at Gucci Gulch, Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Alan S. Murray, then reporters for The Wall Street Journal, note that it was not a real book title but rather a favorite saying of Mr. Regan's. He attributed it to his friend John (Buck) Chapoton, who claimed he heard the phrase appended to its obscene imperative during a poker game in Texas.
This is an example of a vestigial metaphor. It occurs in such phrases as "my turn in the barrel" or "where were you when, etc." The jokes or anecdotes are deservedly forgotten, but the punch lines, or portions of them, live on. In this case, though the sentiment is not as elegantly expressed as in Churchill's alliterative "in defeat, defiance," the intensifying message stands tall in the linguistic saddle.
As the artist who painted the portrait of Donald Regan, I can tell you how it came about.
Secretary Regan posed for me in his White House office when he was President Reagan's chief of staff. During the first sitting I noticed a framed inscription in Japanese on his wall and asked what it was. He felt obliged to tell me the joke and that the Marines he commanded in Japan gave it to him as a parting gift. Obviously he enjoyed it.
When composing the portrait I decided to include some books, but I don't normally make the titles legible. After his enthusiastic approval of the painting at the last sitting, I pointed out that title, which was intended to be so nearly illegible that no one would notice unless directed to. It was to be his secret, to share with others only if he chose. He clapped his hands in delight and said, "I love it!"
Herbert E. Abrams
So lissen arready Wolfie (from Velvl, from the German Wölfl, diminutive of Wolf, pronounced Vulf, meaning Wolf) — again with the mistakes in Yiddish, when you wrote and they printed mavenim! I'll give you the singular, maven, as the Anglicization of the correct mavin. But the plural was, has been, and always will be or should be mavinim. And what would it hurt if you maybe transliterated it as mayvin so it shouldn't come out like mahvin, which is no longer the preferred English equivalent for Moisheh? And for the same 20¢ I can point out that on the occasion of birth, circumcision, bar mitzvah, marriage and burial Ze'eyev is appended; that's the Hebrew for Wolf. Hey, lokka this; a whole lecture on a pussel kart (also putzel kart) and enough room left over to correct your next mistake.
Arnold Lapiner, Major, U.S. Army retired
Trumansburg, New York
"Chancellor Helmut Kohl," wrote Business Week's Thane Peterson in a February 1998 article, "has turned European unity and the euro common currency into motherhood-and-apple-pie issues."
Meaning: "redolent with values that cannot easily be opposed." Origin? Here is one political lexicographer's speculation about its derivation.
One half of that portmanteau phrase began as against motherhood, meaning "a position that no politician in his right mind would take."
The other half of the suitcase is as American as apple pie. The United States produces more apples than any other country in the world, and the pie made from the fruit has come to signify traditional values.
When the expressions were combined in motherhood and apple pie (hyphenated when used as a modifier), the result became a worthy competitor to the flag and the Fourth of July. So how come there's no Apple Pie Day?
Practitioners of what Thomas Carlyle called the dismal science — economics — are in a cheery mood these days. Nowhere is the mood swing from gloom and doom to sweetness and light more vivid than in the use of the phrase as far as the eye can see.
Walter Heller, an economic adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was prescient in concerns he expressed in August 1981: "Even with the Reagan tax cut and the investment stimuli, businessmen are worried about the huge budget deficits as far as the eye can see."
Two years later, Reagan's director of the Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman, made the figure of speech more famous in the economics dodge when he warned more specifically that without more budget discipline, there would be $200 billion deficits as far as the eye can see.
As recently as 1996, the Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole was thundering, "We have a president who's vetoed a balanced budget and submitted budgets with debt as far as the eye can see."
But then President Clinton embraced the GOP goal as his own, and after long-sustained prosperity produced an unexpected tide of tax revenues, his economic aide Gene Sperling found it possible to use the magic phrase in a different direction early in 1998: "You'll see surpluses as far as the eye can see."
Sure enough, in Mr. Clinton's State of the Union address, the phrase came shining through: "And if we maintain our resolve, we will produce balanced budgets as far as the eye can see."
Walter Heller would be proud. He was the one who underscored the efficacy of jawboning — price control by public presidential hectoring — and popularized an apocryphal quotation attributed to the gangster Al Capone: "You can get a lot more done with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone."
How far can the human eye really see? Much depends on the brightness of the object in view. For astronomers, even the naked eye can see stars thousands of light-years out in space; for economists, however, a couple of fiscal years is considered pretty good.
Headline writers are sometimes blessed with the names of people that lend themselves to wordplay. The independent counsel Ken Starr, for example, has run the gamut from "Starr Turn" to "Starr Chamber."
When Louis Freeh, director of the FBI, stepped forward to disagree semipublicly with his nominal boss, Attorney General Janet Reno, one writer recalled the famous Martin Luther King Jr. line and wrote, "Freeh at Last."
Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania recalled a Lincoln speech and felt the punning urge to tell a right-wing columnist that "the Department of Justice cannot survive half slave and half Freeh."
As the years roll by, if Freeh tries something new, the headline will be "Freeh Enterprise"; his closest aides will be known inside the Bureau as "Freeh Agents"; the narcotics chasers will be "Freeh Based"; the person who forces him to leave will be the "Freeh Booter," leading to the "Freeh Fall"; any objection he raises to this will be known as the "Freeh Kick."
In the same way, we can envision his cotton security blanket being called the "Freeh Throw"; the question "Freeh Better?" being answered negatively in "Freeh Verse"; restrictions placed on his agency called "Freeh Rein," and the sack of pretzels sold at the Ninth Street Luncheonette labeled "Freeh Lunch."
Lance, load, love; way, wheel, will: The possibilities seem endless. But U.S. News & World Report is trying to spoil the fun with its recent headline: "Time to End the Freeh-for-All?"
I, for one, pledge not to base any puns on anybody's family name. The appellation "Freeh" was originally the German Früh, with an umlaut, evolving into its present state at least a generation ago, and was not a result of any shortening or changing on the Director's part. He was born Freeh.
"Charles Dickens assigned names to his characters that reflected their personality traits," writes Jerome Schwartz of Bloomfield, New Jersey. "Such names as Fezziwig, Scrooge and Bumble come to mind. Can you recall the name of this technique?"
Anthony Trollope did it, too: He named a doctor character Abel Fillgrave, M.D. The practice of novelists — or the occasion in real life — is the reverse of an eponym, which applies the name of a real person to a noun or verb. ("The nominee was borked.") And you notice these perfect appellations all the time: There used to be a helpful fellow in the Times's payroll department named Harry Cash, and now there's a clerk here in the Washington bureau named John Files. The head of the Passenger Vessel Association, which warned passengers not to climb on bow railings after viewing Titanic, is John Groundwater.
Assuming it all began in Shakespeare, I turned to the Bardophile Jeffrey McQuain, who immediately remembered the superficial Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor and the fast-and-loose Mistress Quickly in Henry IV, Part 1.
Deeper research found the marriage of name and quality of character in allegories written two centuries earlier: Larry Scanlon, professor of English at Rutgers and editor of Studies in the Age of Chaucer, notes that Constance, the protagonist of "The Man of Law's Tale," is a model of constancy, and Prudence in another Canterbury tale offers wise advice. At that time, William Langland's Piers Plowman was a farmer whose first name is a play on an earlier Peter, the apostle whose name comes from the Greek petra, "rock." In Matthew 16:18, Jesus is quoted as saying, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church." (Plowman's daughter is named Do-Just-So-or-Thy-Dame-Shall-Beat-Thee, a name that seems to have atrophied over the centuries along with severe parental discipline.)
"The apt word you seek," McQuain says, "is aptronym, said to be coined by the American newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams, who in 1938 joined the panel of radio's 'Information Please.'" FPA, as he was called, rearranged the first two letters of patronym, the naming for one's father, to spell apt, with its Latin root for "fasten, attach," which now means "fitted."
McQuain, who happened to know about FPA's coinage because his Internet word column is at www.infoplease.com, steered me to Merriam-Webster's What's in a Name? by Paul Dickson. That word maven applies this word to real people with euonymous (a mouth-filling word for "apt") names: Matt Batts, former major-league catcher; I. Bidwell, contractor; Dick Curd, Carnation Milk spokesman; Mike Bassett, veterinarian.
"Collecting aptronyms is generally good fun," Dickson writes, "but gets a bit unnerving when you run into the horrifyingly apt Will Drop, a Montreal window cleaner who died in a fall; and Wilburn and Frizzel, who on the grim morning of October 6, 1941, went to the electric chair at the Florida State prison."
Years ago I had a friend, a physician, who was dean of the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine. His name was Bill Butcher. In a gathering I once asked him whether he had been called to the operating room to perform emergency surgery on an accident victim. When his name was announced over the intercom, one of the attending nurses became hysterical and had to be replaced.
Another doctor present at the same time, hearing this, informed the group that there was, several decades ago, in Boston a noted physician named Dr. Killum.
The problem is that you never suggest what name we should call perfectly competent people who are wrongly named — malonyms?
East Hampton, Massachusetts
My favorites include Lord Brain, the leading British neurologist; Coach Cramp, longtime swimming coach at Horace Mann Prep School; Dr. Donald Kuntz, gynecologist; Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank; Billboard movie critic Michele Magazine; scholar and professor A. J. Cave, who wrote at length on the anatomy and society of the Neanderthals; and Blaise Wick, president of Zippo Lighter Corporation.
Seth M. Siegal
New York, New York
A dentist named Dr. Payne. A dermatologist named Dr. Skinner. A bank teller named Mr. Outlaw. A minister named Paradise. A rabbi named Rabbi Angel. A policeman named Officer Secret. A hairdresser named Mrs. Brunetti. A paint-store proprietor named Mr. I. Schmier. A baker named Mr. Flakowitz.
David L. Garner
Dix Hills, New York
Their history extends well before Chaucer. The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament includes dozens. For example, the Book of Ruth presents Illness (Mahlon) and Failing (Chilion), both of whom die by the fifth verse. Their mother Naomi's name means Pleasant; when she returns to her home of Bethlehem after the death of her husband and sons, she finds this name no longer apt, and asks, "Do not call me Naomi (Pleasant), call me Marah (Bitter), for the Almighty has made my life forever bitter." By the happy ending of the story, though, she is again unambiguously Naomi.
Aaron L. Mackler, Ph.D.
Department of Theology
Perhaps you could explore inaptronyms, if I may coin a word: persons whose names are patently inappropriate to their callings. For example, when I was a student at the University of Notre Dame, the head of the sociology department was a Mr. Loveless and the dean of the Law School was a Mr. Lawless.
James P. Finnegan
Chappaqua, New York
Copyright © 2003 by The Cobbett Corporation
Back to My Roots
"Dear Sirs," begins a letter to The New York Times from Stephen Sondheim, the noted Broadway songwriter whose "Send in the Clowns" won the 1975 Grammy Award for Song of the Year and whose Sunday in the Park with George won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Because his excoriation is written with his usual flair, I reprint it here in full:
In his weekly contribution to your Sunday magazine section, William Safire writes, "Let others fight their way through the maelstrom of charge and countercharge about low sex in high places; the duty of this column is to get to the bottom of the origins and development of the hot phrases." Yes, indeed. Would that he practiced what he preached.
His column used to be about language. For a long time now it has been nothing but a sly forum for his virulent, bilious and, in my opinion, psychopathic hatred of Bill Clinton. His pretended interest in the linguistic fallout from such notable phrasemakers as Paula Jones, Susan Carpenter-McMillan, Ken Starr, Dick Armey, Trent Lott and their like, often filtered through the remarks of their friends, colleagues and commentators, is a transparent excuse to remind the reader of his [Mr. Safire's] political obsessions. Like his fellow reactionaries, he's an unregenerate pork-barreler: He attaches his views, no matter how irrelevant, to anything that moves.
Safire already has two shots a week on the Op-Ed page. Isn't that enough? To call his Sunday salvo On Language is only one of his hypocrisies. The column used to be a vehicle for his often-entertaining observations about words and phrases as linguistic outcroppings of national culture, not an excuse to slather us with his shrill opinions.
Tell him to go back to his roots.
That is what is called in the trade "a good pop." Although a self-imposed discipline prohibits my taking issue in this space with the political substance of his charges, it may be instructive to deal in temperate and scholarly fashion with some of Mr. Sondheim's semantic and rhetorical usages.
Virulent, bilious and, in my opinion, psychopathic. The earliest meaning of the adjective virulent (from the Latin virus, "poison") was the nature of an infection "marked by a rapid, malignant course." This precursor of poisonous, like the synonym "venomous," has since been extended to mean "malicious, mean-spirited, excessively harsh." Virulent, especially to the many now attuned to the dangers of viruses, is a more apt word than the overused vicious or the unfamiliar vituperative ("berating abusively").
Bilious is how you feel when your liver secretes too much bile, or how you look when so afflicted (sickly yellowish, almost green, leading to the characterization of the latest Paris fashion color as "a bilious green"). A sense derived from that, accurately used by Mr. Sondheim here, is "peevish" or "ill-tempered."
Because psychopathic is rhetorically excessive — any charge of "having a mental disorder often leading to criminal behavior" tends to turn reasonable readers off — it would ordinarily lessen the impact of the two previous adjectives. But note the writer's skillful interjection of in my opinion before the third word. The phrase not only introduces a dramatic pause before a point, but also seems to say that virulent and bilious were self-evident fact and that only psychopathic was a matter of opinion. The writer's admittedly debatable medical evocation is reinforced in the next sentence with a specific form of psychopathy, obsessions. Such progression of images is what goes into a good pop.
He's an unregenerate pork-barreler: He attaches his views, no matter how irrelevant, to anything that moves. The meaning of unregenerate is "stubborn, obstinate," which are run-of-the-mill words. Better, in a pop, to use a less familiar, longer term with a good rhythm that most readers sort of understand in the context. The writer's choice here is among unreformed (the original meaning, but too closely associated with political reform), unreconstructed (colored by Civil War Reconstruction and connoting resistance to the Union) and unregenerate (which can be nicely confused with degenerate).
I would have gone with unreconstructed with its historically reactionary Confederate connotation, because it would set up pork barrel, a political Americanism derived from the barrel in which salt pork was distributed to slaves in pre-Civil War days. "Oftentimes the eagerness of the slaves," wrote C. C. Maxey in The National Municipal Review in 1919, "would result in a rush upon the pork barrel....Members of Congress in the stampede to get their local appropriation items into the omnibus river and harbor bills behaved so much like Negro slaves rushing the pork barrel that these bills were facetiously styled 'pork barrel' bills."
Sondheim's use of the noun pork-barreler takes the word-picture of a politician larding "pork," or governmental largess, into unrelated legislation, and extends that image to a writer attaching irrelevant views to a faster-moving subject. That's an effective extension of a metaphor.
Many would take exception to the stilted salutation Dear Sirs; like Gentlemen, it is an archaism as hoary as "carbon copy." Dear Editors is more pointed and less sexist.
The closing line, Tell him to go back to his roots, is not a derogation of the Bronx, where I went to high school. The great lyricist's double meaning is to the Nixon White House, from which the lifelong biliousness of the object of his ire was presumably derived, as well as to this column's primary concern with etymology, the roots of words.
Deconstruction of a well-built pop opens a vein of inquiry that is always worthwhile. Isn't it rich?
Now that's what I call an entertaining column. Thank you.
New York, New York
I would like to take issue with your analysis of bilious. I believe the word is rooted in the medieval doctrine of humors — the four bodily fluids which we supposed to determine mental equilibrium. (This meaning of the word humor as a bodily fluid is now preserved in the aqueous and vitreous humors of the eyeball.) The medieval humors were blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. The confusion obviously comes with the two types of bile. Yellow bile was associated with the liver, and an excess was thought to produce melancholy. My Oxford American dictionary still lists liverish as irritable, glum. While this usage has mostly disappeared from English, it is apparently still common for the French to refer to having a touch of liver when we would say that we have the blues or the blahs. Since you chose the liver's yellow bile as the departure for your analysis, the most derogatory synonym you could find was peevish.
I think this is somewhat wide of Mr. Sondheim's meaning and that something stronger was intended. Webster's bile- ill-nature, bitterness of feeling, spleen reveals that the basis for Mr. Sondheim's invective probably resides not in the melancholy yellow bile but rather in black bile which, with a fine disregard for medical facts, became associated with spleen. Hence "splenetic" and "to vent one's spleen" as expressions of unreasoning anger or vindictiveness. Merited or not, this is, I believe, Mr. Sondheim's meaning in his perception of your pursuit of the Clintons.
New York, New York
Your last paragraph begins: "Deconstruction of a well-built pop opens a vein of inquiry that is always worthwhile." Are you certain that deconstruction is the proper word here? It seems to me that your column was not at all a deconstruction of Sondheim's letter. Rather, it was a close reading or, better, an exercise in practical criticism.
As you likely know, deconstruction is associated mainly with postmodern literary theory. A deconstructionist will supposedly analyze a text and, seizing on inner contradictions and tensions, demonstrate that in fact the text does not mean what we think it means, or that it has multiple, irreconcilable meanings. Nowhere did you suggest that this was the case with Mr. Sondheim's letter. Instead, you set out to answer the question: What makes Mr. Sondheim's missive an effective piece of rhetoric? If anything, you placed yourself in the anti-deconstructionist camp because your theoretical premise seemed to be that, ultimately, a literary text — Mr. Sondheim's letter — is knowable.
When people use the verb deconstruct, 99 percent of the time they mean nothing more than analyze or critique — though evidently they feel deconstruct lends an air of sophistication to the activity.
The Ottawa Citizen
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
I wish to formally disagree with your characterization of bilious as "how you feel when your liver secretes too much bile." Bilious and jaundiced are not synonyms. The former word does not refer to oversecretion but rather to regurgitation of bile and acids from the proximal intestine and stomach into the oral cavity. The taste of digestive fluids is both bitter and sour, providing the desired flavor in Mr. Sondheim's remarks.
Robert S. Goldsmith, M.D.
Copyright © 2003 by The Cobbett Corporation
"William F. Buckley Jr. tells us," writes Jackson Williams of Austin, Texas, "that Brent Bozell was the ghostwriter of Barry Goldwater's 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative. The very next day, William Safire flatly credits Stephen Shadegg....One of them might actually be right. I wonder which one."
Nobody's righter than Buckley. Shadegg (whose son John now serves in the House) wrote many of Goldwater's speeches in the late 50s, but Bill Buckley, who was inside that conservative circle, informs me that "Brent wrote the entire thing ex nihilo, from nothing. He had been writing speeches for Barry for a couple of years, but the book we're talking about, which I saw prepartum, in partu and postpartum [before, during and after birth] was Brent's." (The bracketed translations of Buckley's Latin are mine; I presume antepartum would have spoiled the alliteration.)
But what of the most memorable line Goldwater spoke? At the Republican Convention of 1964, as Rockefeller-Scranton forces were calling themselves "moderates" and calling the Goldwater supporters "extremists," the victorious candidate intoned the words that split and sank the party: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
I credited that to Karl Hess. This is disputed by Seth Leibshohn of Washington, who holds that "the author of that speech was a then-professor of political science at the University of Ohio and now at Claremont, Henry Jaffa."
As best I can reconstruct it, the inflammatory speech was largely written by Hess, with a quotation — of Marcus Tullius Cicero defying the conspiratorial Catiline — contributed by Professor Jaffa; Goldwater (or one of his acknowledged ghosts) wrote later that "I had heard it earlier from the writer Taylor Caldwell."
Cicero, criticized for his hasty execution of five of Catiline's supporters, said, "I must remind you, Lords, Senators, that extreme patriotism in the defense of freedom is no crime, and let me respectfully remind you that pusillanimity in the pursuit of justice is no virtue in a Roman."
It may have worked oratorically for Cicero but backfired when used by Goldwater.
When independent counsel Ken Starr went before the House Judiciary Committee, he complained that "a number of my prosecutors are being calumnied and criticized." He repeated the unfamiliar verb: "To criticize and to calumny the men and women with whom I'm privileged to serve...is unfair, and I think it's unfortunate."
The use of calumny as a verb is infrequent. Although the verb form has a history in the language — in 1895, the Pall Mall Gazette wrote, "The President has not been in office 12 hours...and is already calumnied" — the preferred form is calumniate. "The highest personages have been calumniated," wrote Miles Smith in the "Letter from the Translators to the Reader," the preface to the 1611 King James version of the Bible.
It is as a noun that calumny is best known. The word is rooted in the Latin calvi, "to trick, deceive, intrigue against" (also the root of challenge), which progressed to calumnia, "false accusation." The old Century Dictionary defined it well as "untruth maliciously spoken, to the detraction of another; a defamatory report; slander."
Calumniate is to be preferred as the verb, because the perpetrator can then be called a calumniator, which has a zestier flavor than calumnizer and avoids the calumnist/columnist confusion. For an adjective, calumnious has the usage edge over calumniatory; Shakespeare, in Hamlet, had Laertes observe, "Virtue itself 'scapes not calumnious strokes." The Bard liked the word; later in the play, after one of his bawdiest puns, Hamlet says to the innocent Ophelia, "Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny."
In mock modesty, an unidentified columnist is sometimes referred to in this space as "a vituperative right-wing calumniator," but it was not until Starr's use that the word was widely heard in political discourse. Its origin in that sense was the ancient Latin advice to solons, Fortiter calumniari, aliquid adhærebit; its English translation, "Throw plenty of mud and some of it will be sure to stick."
A full-page color advertisement in respectable newspapers for the movie American Beauty zeroed in on a female abdomen. Staring out at the reader, like the inescapable single eye of a Cyclops, was the model's umbilicus.
Showing that portion of the anatomy was not in bad taste because umbilici are omnipresent these days. Fashion models sashay down the runway with the smooth flesh of their flat stomachs proudly exposed, and nubile shoppers parade through malls with breezes causing goose bumps on their midsections. And at the center of attention is the rounded depression or the sometimes slight protuberance, the dialectical synonymy of which we examine today. We're talking bellybuttons, the focus of fashion at the fin de millénaire. A post-monokini shock was needed. If the display of nipples no longer titillated, designers asked one another, could the showing of bottoms be far behind? But when even the thong lost its shock value, fashion's eye landed on the center of it all.
"Between the emotion and the response," wrote the poet, "falls the Shadow." Between the halter and the hip-hugger, or between the cropped top and the low-slung pants, falls the Navel.
The Romans called the point at which the cord connecting the fetus with the placenta was cut and tied off the umbilicus, from umbo, "knob, projection." Speakers of Old High German and Old English preferred a Greek root, omphalos, which led to nabalo and nafela, and then popped up in Shakespeare as "he unseamed him from the naue to the chops," and developed into Sir Thomas Browne's 1646 observation, "The use of the Navell is to continue the infant into the mother." From there to James Russell Lowell's 1873 poetry: "He lifted not his eyes from off his navel's mystic knot."
That notion of self-absorption was picked up by the playwright Eugene O'Neill: "I had a mental view of him regarding his navel frenziedly by the hour," and by the BBC's publication, the Listener, in 1966: "One sits in a New York traffic jam, contemplating, as it were, the city's navel." Those who do this religiously are called omphalopsychic, from a sect of quietists who induced hypnotic trances by gazing at their navels.
Today, many continue the introspective study. "Bellybuttons — there are two kinds," said a character in the 1973 Odd Couple, "the kind that go in and the kind that go out. I want an outie! No, no! I want an innie!" But today many more of us are contemplating the navels of other people, forcing synonymists to consider the varied nomenclature.
Bellybutton was first noted by John Bartlett in the 1877 edition of his Dictionary of Americanisms. Rudyard Kipling liked that noun in 1934, scorning fights with those "who do not come up to your bellybutton." Although Aldous Huxley preferred tummy-button, J. B. Priestley in 1946 minted a nice trope with this sign of stomach-tightened nervousness: "with your bellybutton knockin' against your backbone." (It's two words in Merriam-Webster, one word in Webster's New World. I go with the analogy of bellyache, not belly dancer.)
Dialect-delighting Americans, however, have worked out a variety of names for the same anatomical place. Thanks to the editors of the Dictionary of American Regional English (now hard at work at the University of Wisconsin at Madison on their fourth volume, covering the letters P to S), we can examine a few answers to their Question X34/1: "What are some other names and nicknames for the navel?"
One-eyed Mabel was one response, probably derived from the popular nabel, a variant of navel recalling the Old High German nabalo. Button and buttonhole were frequent choices, and a fair sampling called it a belly-hole. Chicken butt and chicken peck were noted. Those interested in content preferred lint-catcher, lint-getter and lint-strainer. Perhaps a Greek influence can be found in one respondent's oompalikis and several piko answers. The midriff midrash includes the Yiddish pupik.
Many responses to DARE's survey began with the word where. In the South, it was where the Yankee shot you; in the West, where the Indians shot you, and across the country, where I got shot in the war. Two interviewees eschewed the violent gunfire-bullet hole metaphor and replied with the less bellicose where you got hit with a pick.
Shucks! Any pre-television senior citizen could tell you that an umbilicus is where you keep the salt while eating celery in bed.
Copyright © 2003 by The Cobbett Corporation
Posted January 24, 2010
No text was provided for this review.