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Practical responses

Palin vs Arnie

An infuriated reader writes: ((Thanks to sw. Readers’ letters may be edited for length and/or comic-but-potentially-libellous obscenity.))

I was reading [this] and getting infuriated for so many different reasons — not the least of which is that Palin gets almost daily coverage of her Facebook comments in the press.

And now, thanks to infuriated reader, Sarah Palin is getting coverage of her Facebook comments on In your face, news priorities! Anyway, infuriated reader continues:

Amongst the many phrases that disturbed me, I particularly enjoyed this passage:

“While I and all Alaskans witness the impacts of changes in weather patterns firsthand, I have repeatedly said that we can’t primarily blame man’s activities for those changes,” she wrote. “And while I did look for practical responses to those changes, what I didn’t do was hamstring Alaska’s job creators with burdensome regulations so that I could act ‘greener than thou’ when talking to reporters.”

It is extraordinary for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that there is a rhetorical switch from the description of a purported communal experience to a self-quotation that seeks to imply a factual basis for that experience through self-quotation, in which her “I have repeatedly said” suddenly becomes almost God-like in its insistence that what she says is therefore the actual fact. It is as if she wrote, “While I and all Alaskans have weathered many storms, I have repeatedly said that snow is just a form of water.” I think it would be tempting to consider, however, two snippets of unspeak: “practical responses” and “job creators”. Any thoughts?

Thank you, infuriated reader of! Well, yes: 1) I am pretty sure Palin has never referred to “job destroyers” when Alaskan companies are firing people; and 2) “practical responses” evidently unspeaks reduction of CO2 emissions as outwith the realm of the practical. (This is a perfect example of the normal use of practical in political speech, where it is shorthand for “what I am prepared to do, for reasons that have nothing to do with an honest comparison of the practicability of various alternatives”.)

I note that Palin also wrote: “Perhaps he [Arnold Schwarzenegger] will recall that I live in our nation’s only Arctic state”, apparently arguing that, because she lives in a place closer to one of the poles, Palin therefore knows more about global warming than does the governator. By that logic, penguins ought to know more about global warming than Sarah Palin. (And actually, they really do?)

I note further that Palin wrote:

Climate change is like gravity – a naturally occurring phenomenon that existed long before, and will exist long after, any governmental attempts to affect it.

An imaginary scientist ripostes: “Nuclear fusion is also a naturally occurring phenomenon that existed long before, and will exist long after, any governmental attempts to affect it. But we can also make it happen in ways that are quite dangerous to us.”

Finally, my eye kept returning to the headline given to the newsy announcement of exciting-news-from-Sarah-Palin’s-Facebook-page, which reads: “Palin Fires Back At Schwarzenegger”. It’s as though she has never seen Commando or Raw Deal. Dude, there really is no point firing back at Schwarzenegger? He will kill you just the same!



Perplexed pedantry

Oliver Kamm’s condition of melder (“mental confusion”), I am sad to report, is a chronic and perhaps incurable one. His latest “Pedant” column states:

We reported last week that David Cameron had “appeared discomfited by questions about why he was one of 13 privately educated members of the Shadow Cabinet who failed to mention that in biographies on the party’s website”.

The verb “discomfit” does not mean to make uncomfortable. It means to rout or to overwhelm.

The first recorded sense of discomfit in the OED is indeed “to undo in battle; to defeat or overthrow completely; to beat, to rout”. Of course, as so often happens — except in Oliver Kamm’s own private semantic universe — the word then acquired weaker metaphorical senses. OED gives:

2. a. To defeat or overthrow the plans or purposes of; to thwart, foil. b. To throw into perplexity, confusion, or dejection; to cast down utterly; to disconcert.

1530 PALSGR. 518/1, I discomfyte, I put one out of comforte…je desconfys. […] 1596 SHAKS. Tam Shr. II. i. 164 Wel go with me, and be not so discomfited. ((Here, “be not so discomfited” means something like “cheer up”: Hortensio reports that Kate broke her lute over his head, and Baptista proposes her younger daughter as a replacement pupil.)) […] 1848 DICKENS Dombey i, Dombey was quite discomfited by the question.

Et cetera. As one would expect, OED‘s meaning 2.b. is also attested by Merriam-Webster (“to put into a state of perplexity and embarrassment”); and is given as the primary sense in Collins:

discomfit vb. (tr.) 1. to make uneasy, confused, or embarrassed. 2. to frustrate the plans or purpose of. 3. Archaic. to defeat in battle. ((Collins English Dictionary, 3rd Edn. (1994).))

Both Merriam-Webster and Collins rightly note that the only meaning of discomfit known to Oliver Kamm, that of “defeat”, has long fallen into desuetude; and the OED confirms that he thinks incorrect a use of discomfited identical to one by Charles Dickens 161 years ago. Nothing daunted by the facts, Kamm goes on to cite another example:

A recent book review in The Guardian referred to a “discomfited journalist”, to whom all that had happened was that he had been criticised by a pressure group.

Amusingly enough, that was one of mine: and being criticised by a pressure group was certainly enough to make the journalist in question discomfited in the venerable senses of “disconcerted” and “confused”; Kamm thinks this is a gotcha only because he is labouring under the strange delusion that the only possible meaning of discomfited is the archaic one of “utterly defeated”.

One must regretfully conclude that either Kamm does not have access to any good dictionaries, or he simply does not care to consult them before issuing his forlornly mistaken pronouncements about what words mean and what they do not. In either case, the combination of pomposity and comical ignorance is, as ever, delectable. ((In the same column, meanwhile, Kamm also flogs the canard of fulsome, claiming: “‘Fulsome’ does not mean full or generous: it means cloying.” In fact, sense 1 of fulsome in the OED is: “Characterized by abundance, possessing or affording copious supply; abundant, plentiful, full”; and this sense remains a current one. See Geoffrey K Pullum at Language Log on fulsome and “people who leap to attack uses of particular word-senses without carefully checking the dictionaries and usage books first”.))

If you were the commissioning editor of a column pretending to expertise that fell so routinely into buffoonish error of fact, would you feel discomfited?


Foreign objects

Who ate all the pie?

Controversy erupted at the world pie-eating championships when Wigan pies were replaced with bigger pies from nearby Adlington. But the baker of the championship pies, Vince Bowen, made a robust defence of his cuisine:

“I may be from down south but I know what makes a good pie,” he said […] “We only use the best English beef, not foreign objects, and we make sure there’s enough liquid in there to help swallowing.”

It’s a relief to know that Bowen used no foreign objects in his pies — safety pins? pencil stubs? Samurai swords? a sardonic sac? — although this insistence could be interpreted as a subtle slander against fellow pie-makers of the region. Indeed, it seems as though morsels of French or Argentinian beef would have counted as foreign objects in this pie-deology.

Pie-eating champion Barry Rigby, for one, was not complaining:

“It’s a matter of practice, whatever the size of the pie,” he said. “But there’s a lot of thinking involved too. You’ve got to work out how to breathe, for instance. I’m not giving too much away, but the basic rule is bite, swallow, bite, swallow and breathe through your nose.”

To illustrate this mix of skills, I prepared a handy pie chart:


How do you eat your pies, readers?


Fought off

Crime and punishment

The Times and the Guardian both report the tale of a man who was jailed after he “fought off” knife-wielding intruders in his home. As the reports subsequently make clear, what Munir Hussain and his brother actually did was chase one of the fleeing intruders down the road and break a cricket bat on him, leaving him with a permanent brain injury. This may be an understandable reaction, but it is not exactly fighting off, is it?


To be a part of it

Deploying different arguments

In a television interview, Tony Blair said that if it had been known for certain that Saddam Hussein possessed no “weapons of mass destruction”, some other rationale for invading Iraq would have been cooked up:

I would still have thought it right to remove him. I mean obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat.

Of course this is not really news, except that it is coming from the mouth of this particular horse; after all, six years ago, Paul Wolfowitz said that the alleged “WMD” were chosen as the justification for the war “for bureaucratic reasons”.

The Independent on Sunday‘s John Rentoul, who teaches “contemporary history” at Queen Mary, prefers to recount events in this way:

Blair wanted to get rid of Robert Mugabe, but he couldn’t. He wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein and so when the Americans decided to do it, Britain could have been part of it or could have stood aside.

He chose to be part of it. But if Saddam had complied with UN resolutions, then, because the British are more fastidious than the Americans in their interpretation of international law, he would not have been able to do it.

This is an admirably cheerful narrative, according to which Tony Blair, instead of standing near the wall nursing a tepid glass of white wine and glaring resentfully at the festivities, sociably and happily “chose to be a part of it” (it being the party game of invading Iraq). It furnishes me, at least, with the delightful mental image of Tony Blair in 2002 and early 2003 padding around in his socks at Number 10, singing to the tune of “New York, New York”:

I want to be a part of it —
Baghdad, Baghdad!

What do you want to be a part of, readers?



Vulcan mind tricks

Oliver Kamm’s “The Pedant” column continues to demonstrate just that level of scrupulous attention to detail and fact that we have come to expect from him. This week, he claims that the word meld cannot mean “combine”:

Both writers are using “meld” as if it means “put together” […] Avoid it. “Meld” comes from the German verb “melden”, meaning “to announce”. The word is used in card games. It means to declare a combination of cards with scoring value.

The use of “meld” by the two writers in The Times bears no relation to what the word means.

From the OED:

meld (meld), v.3 orig. and chiefly U.S. [perh. a blend of MELT v.1 and WELD v.; but cf. E.D.D. melder entanglement, mental confusion; meldered, mixed, entangled.] trans. and intr. To merge, blend; to combine, incorporate.
1939 New Yorker 23 Sept. 31 (Advt.), Schenley’s exclusive process — melding — which ‘marries’ the whiskey blend so perfectly that it retains its rich flavor. […]

So Kamm, comically, is insisting that a sense of meld which has been in use for at least seventy years “bears no relation to what the word means”. Let us all join together in hoping that his state of “mental confusion”, or melder, clears up soon!


A sardonic sac

Auster sauce

A concerned reader writes:

What’s with this hate campaign against Paul Auster? See Hadley Freeman in [yesterday’s] Guardian and Wood in recent New Yorker. Have I missed something? ((Thanks to Daniel F.))

If he has, so have I! But let’s see. Hadley Freeman writes:

Paul Auster is repeatedly described as an author with a “European sensibility”, suggesting that American book reviewers see “European” as meaning “repetitive and narcissistic, with a particular appeal to self-important male undergraduates.”

Miaow. Meanwhile, James Wood’s review begins with a parody of Austerian prose and incident. Wood characterizes his own effort as:

l’eau d’Auster in a sardonic sac.

So European! I take it that a sardonic sac is a Frenchwoman’s handbag that makes subtly wounding comments about your own, much less chic bag as they face off over the café table?


Drop-dead deadline

I like the whooshing sound

Hillary Clinton said, of the July 2011 deadline set by Obama for US troops to begin pulling out of Afghanistan:

We’re not talking about an exit strategy or a drop-dead deadline.

It’s unfortunate, perhaps, to bring up the subject of yet more people dropping dead in Afghanistan on one date or another. But there seems indeed to be a massive internal battle of metaphors to describe this deadline: the White House said it was set in stone; but then the national security adviser said it was a guide slope, and a ramp, not a cliff. ((The Guardian, confusingly, got this the wrong way round, quoting Jones as saying it’s “a cliff, not a ramp”. Well, do I pack a base-jumping parachute or a BMX bike, or what? Someone might also have called it a signal of urgency, which phrase appears in quotes in the Guardian standfirst, but I can’t find this sourced anywhere as a direct quote from an individual.))

More importantly, though, is Clinton’s drop-dead deadline overegging it? On the one hand, I feel drop-deadline would be more elegantly compact; on the other hand, there’s something satisfying about biting down on the three initial dentals of drop-dead deadline (compare “Drop the Dead Donkey”).

As it happens, deadline derives from something that meant literally a drop-dead-line:

2. Mil. A line drawn around a military prison, beyond which a prisoner is liable to be shot down.
1864 […] The ‘dead line’, beyond which the prisoners are not allowed to pass.
1868 […] Seventeen feet from the inner stockade was the ‘dead-line’, over which no man could pass and live. ((OED. In fishing (1860) and engineering, a dead-line is also “a line that does not move”; but the modern use to mean “time-limit” (Chicago newspapermen c.1920) seems to have come via a combination of the military meaning with a use of the term in printing (1917), where the dead-line was “a guide-line marked on the bed of a printing-press”, beyond which the type was not allowed to protrude.))

“Hitting a deadline”, as we say, is therefore a rather riskier kind of brinkmanship than I had imagined.

Curiously, then, Clinton’s drop-dead deadline is an example of unveiling and restressing the original meaning of a word in order to disavow it. Perhaps, after all, it would be better not to speak of deadlines in this case at all?


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