UK paperback


Overlord syndrome

Strange news from the world of videogames, where the heads of development studio Infinity Ward, makers of the $1bn-grossing Modern Warfare 2, have been sacked by the studio’s parent company, Activision. In section 18 of an SEC filing, Activision noted:

The Company is concluding an internal human resources inquiry into breaches of contract and insubordination by two senior employees at Infinity Ward. This matter is expected to involve the departure of key personnel and litigation.

Insubordination is a curious term to add to the straightforward (and, one would have thought, sufficient if true) “breaches of contract”. If the OED is to be believed, it was introduced into English by Edmund Burke in 1790, when he refers to “all the disorders arising from idleness, luxury, dissipation, and insubordination” among soldiers. It has since become possible, of course, to use insubordination in a non-military context, to mean general rebelliousness or defiance of authority. But my own feeling is that anyone who is not actually a military commander, yet complains of insubordination among his hierarchical inferiors, must be a bit of a windfucker. ((This delightful term was apparently current only between 1602 and 1616, according to the HTOED: (n.) Inferior person 06 as abused.)) Either that, or he has been playing too many military-entertainment simulators and can no longer tell fantasy from reality?



Like, totally, dude

If you’re going to complain about a new use of language, it’s as well to check that it is actually new. Thus Ian McMillan in the Guardian:

[T]here’s one recent language development that, if I were a cartoon character, would make me shake my fist and go “Grrrrrrrrrr!”. A few years ago, when people on radio or television were asked questions that required a yes, or an affirmative that was slightly less than yes (if that’s possible), the interviewee would reply “… It is indeed”, which is somehow weightier than yes, somehow more definite and more triumphant […]

These days “… It is indeed” (I’m using the ellipsis to represent the breathy, almost theatrical flourish that always seemed to accompany the phrase; imagine invisible semi-verbal flowers pulled from a sleeve) has been replaced by “Absolutely!”, with an exclamation mark.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that “Absolutely!”, as well as being the new “… It is indeed!”, is the new yes.

A recent language development? The new yes? I think this is a job for the HTOED: | 04 as an emphatic affirmative sure 1803– • rather 1836/9– (colloq., orig. vulgar) • absolutely 1892– (colloq.) • a thousand times, yes 1897; 1982 • definitely 1931–

So absolutely has been used as an affirmative reply for at least 118 years; and, as HTOED defines it, it is an emphatic affirmative — ie, it is not just a flowery alternative to yes, it serves a different function (whether to express surprise, admiration, or deference, as it might be).

My interest was meanwhile piqued by HTOED‘s reference to the affirmative rather having “a vulgar origin”, so I heaved out the OED:

Rather 7. Colloq. (vulgar). Used as a strong affirmative in reply to a question : = ‘I (should) rather think so’; very much so; very decidedly. In this use the first syllable is frequently prolonged.
1836-9 Dickens Sk. Boz., Gt. Winglebury Duel, ‘Do you know the mayor’s house?’ .. ‘Rather’, replied the boots, significantly.

This is news to me, at least, since I had thought that rather in this sense was associated with drawling aristocrats. Perhaps they initially began to imitate this example of “low speech” through inverted linguistic snobbery, and then came to own it?

What is your preferred strong affirmative, readers?


Vote for Change

Why me?

Is it just me, or does George Osborne look as though he has a sneering rubber George Osborne mask permanently superglued to his moonling face? Anyway, the Conservative Party in Britain has announced its new election slogan, which is:

Vote for Change.

I initially assumed this was a desperate act of bribery, according to which the Tories were promising a handful of coins to anyone who bothered to make it down to the polling station — you know, vote for change? — but no. It really does mean as little as it appears to. In a way it is a masterstroke, the reductio ad absurdum of the very idea of a campaign slogan, the ne plus ultra of “communications”-led politics. The sole idea-oid it contains is the contemporary anti-idea that change is always desirable in and of itself, even though one can of course think of many changes that would be undesirable, such as if the planet were to be struck by an asteroid, or drinking beer made illegal.

Opposition parties always play on the message “We’re not the other lot”, but they rarely have nothing else to say. At least Barack Obama’s slogan, for example — the aspartame-based syrup of Change You Can Believe In — added another empty signifier to the first. Depending on the concept change alone just looks lazy. As a reason to choose a candidate, moreover, Vote for Change recommends racist loon Nick Griffin just as much as it does foundation-caked estate-agent-impersonator David Cameron. ((Previously in “David Cameron”: A conscience issue.))

What change would you like to see, readers?



When courts attack

Lawfare is a new one on me: it does not mean the victuals consumed by barristers, but the attempt to destroy innocent countries through the use of what an correspondent calls “sinister legal instruments”. ((Thanks to Gavin.)) The term is mentioned by Rory McCarthy in the Guardian:

Israel’s approach has been to refuse all participation in the Goldstone inquiry – not even allowing the judge himself into Israel – and to see all the criticism and legal challenges that have followed as a new existential threat, something Netanyahu last week described as “lawfare”. In other words, legal challenges are now to be regarded as just as unconscionable as militant violence. It is what one Israeli thinktank, the Reut Institute, called the “de-legitimisation network”, which “operates in the international arena in order to negate Israel’s right to exist and includes individuals and organisations in the west, which are catalysed by the radical left”.

The characterisation of law as a weapon and its use as tantamount to physical aggression has two handy effects: first, it implies that you can just ignore the law; and secondly, it implies that actual war is not much worse than the legal type.

Apparently the term lawfare was coined in a 1975 paper by John Carlson and Neville Yeomans, when it meant something more benign, as the modern “state monopoly of lawmaking” is seen as “a replacement of swords with words”. More recent usages have, on the other hand, been made by parties irked by legal challenges that they cast as unwarranted interference: most notably, the US Administration of 2000–2008 and its helpers. A 2001 paper by one Colonel Charles J Dunlap [pdf] opens with a testy flurry of rhetorical questions:

Is warfare turning into lawfare? In other words, is international law undercutting the ability of the U.S. to conduct effective military interventions? Is it becoming a vehicle to exploit American values in ways that actually increase risks to civilians? In short, is law becoming more of the problem in modern war instead of part of the solution?

The answer, of course, was yes; and that was the official attitude to all complaints about the legality of US “operations” over the following years. (See also Scott Horton in Harper’s.)

Thus Netanyahu’s recent reference to the lawfare being waged against Israel falls into the category of complaints by the powerful that others want their power to be fettered by rules. (Lawfare is thus contemptuously considered a “strategy of the weak”.)

On the pleasing model of lawfare, we can invent a raft of other disruptive rhyming tactics. Borefare — sending a particularly tedious person to talk for hours to a president; Pawfare — training a team of large cats for offensive operations; and, most devastatingly of all, Gorefare — blasting Al Gore into enemy territory. Why stick to bombs when war by other means could be so much fun?



Two sets to love

World’s best tennis player Robert Dee is suing the Daily Telegraph for calling him the “world’s worst tennis pro”. Dee might indeed have lost “54 successive matches in international tournaments”, totalling “108 sets in a row”, but:

Dee argues that as he did not have a world ranking in 2008, he cannot have been deemed the world’s worst.

This is ingenious! According to Dee’s scheme, then, the player with the lowest world ranking is the worst player, and all the players who haven’t even managed to secure a world ranking must be better than him?


The Gulf

A sea of troubles

Rhetorical conflict over placenames is particularly difficult since all options are thought to have political implications and there is usually no name that everyone agrees is neutral. The Guardian reports:

From now on, the Iranian government has announced, any airline which refers to the waterway between Iran and Arab states as the Arabian Gulf rather than the Persian Gulf will be banned from its airspace. […] Iran says it is the Persian Gulf; the Arab states say it is Arab. Foreign language descriptions can offend either party if they use one name or the other, or decide to omit an adjective altogether.

So we can’t even say “the Gulf”? Drat! And the other alternative not mentioned here, Gulf of Iran, is obviously going to make some people even more unhappy. The UN, for its part, insists on Persian Gulf, along with the UK, though the US has recently begun to prefer Arabian Gulf. Frankly, it’s a mess. I hereby institute an competition™ for the best new name for this body of water that won’t offend a living soul. Any ideas?



How late it was, how late

Among psychologists, the term “mental retardation” is being replaced by “intellectual disability”. In the Washington Post, Christopher M. Fairman points out:

The term “mentally retarded” was itself introduced by the medical establishment in the 20th century to supplant other terms that had been deemed offensive. […] The irony is that the use of “mental retardation” and its variants was originally an attempt to convey greater dignity and respect than previous labels had. While the verb “retard” — meaning to delay or hinder — has roots in the 15th century, its use in reference to mental development didn’t occur until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when medical texts began to describe children with “retarded mental development,” “retarded children” and “mentally retarded patients.” By the 1960s, “mental retardation” became the preferred medical term, gradually replacing previous diagnostic standards such as “idiot,” “imbecile” and “moron” — terms that had come to carry pejorative connotations.

Intellectual disability, then, seems to be merely the latest on — well, it is not a euphemism treadmill (as per body bagstransfer tubeshuman remains pouches), but rather an anti-dysphemism treadmill, or perhaps a sensitivity treadmill.

Nonetheless Fairman argues — correctly, in my view — against the banning of the word retard and its cognates. Someone who uses it lazily as an insult perhaps invites a righteous warm rain of contumely, but such boorish or unthinking use of language ought not to attract legal sanctions.

What of the practise of inventing new insults by adding different prefixes to –tard, such as freetard (one who thinks the creative works of others ought to be free for him), or Avatard (one who likes James Cameron’s latest movie too much)? Do such usages inevitably carry a taint of the insult that is now perceived in retard, or do they get a pass on the grounds of creativity and humour?


A future fair for all

Slogans fun

The Labour Party has announced its election-campaign slogan: A Future Fair For All. We can assume this does not amount to a promise to every citizen of a Ferris Wheel and Waltzer to be delivered to their garden in the years following a Labour victory. Still, not everyone is happy with the slogan. Alex Massie, for example, complains of:

the now traditional absence of punctuation that further obscures the meaning

I assume he means that he would prefer to see the slogan punctuated with a forceful comma, like so: A Future, Fair For All. Though, as a matter of general principle, I very much agree that it is desirable to punctuate everything more heavily than is common, I’m not sure Massie’s suggestion (if it is indeed as I have guessed it to be) would enhance a meaning previously obscured; it would, though, certainly have an unfortunate side-effect. To promise A Future, Fair For All would be to imply that at least, with the Labour Party, there will actually be a future, whereas if you vote Tory, time itself will stop.

Massie also considers that the slogan has chosen arbitrarily to reverse the normal order of words:

Seriously, what’s wrong with A Fair Future For All?

Well, there’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just that it doesn’t mean quite the same thing. Massie’s version promises that everyone will share in a fair future (howsoever defined). The actual slogan, however, emphasizes that the future will be fair (howsoever defined) for everyone — ie, not just fair for some, as would be, or so the slogan charges implicitly, the programme of a Conservative government.

Not a trivial aspect of slogan-engineering — or slogangineering — meanwhile, is the matter of scansion, and it is the work of a few seconds’ speaking-aloud to determine that A Future Fair For All is a quintessentially English, fluidly skipping run of iambs (“To be or not to be”); while Massie’s suggested A Fair Future For All arrests the eye and tongue with the toe-stubbing combination of the iamb-trochee halt and the fact that here, the labiodental fricative must be repeated in the very next syllable (fair future), without the breathing space accorded by -ture in the original (fu -ture fair). The authentic slogan is thus easier to say, more rhythmically agreeable, and thus (or so I suppose) more memorable. Perhaps the at-first-surprising inversion in future fair has, moreover, the faintest tang of a literary sensibility, but I for one am not about to complain.

It is in the nature of political slogans, of course, that they leave enormous pragmatic and philosophical questions unanswered (how exactly will this future be fair?; how will this species of fairness be accomplished?; who, exactly, is all?), and tend rather to unspeak political complexity by appealing to the warm feelings engendered by studiedly vague appeals to what no one is against (future, fairness, all). Still, as slogans go, A Future Fair For All does not strike me as especially pernicious, unintelligible, or stupid.


hit parade

    guardian articles

    older posts