13 01 2012

Interesting question, by David Rowe,  in today’s online The Punch: Is it unAustralian to barrack for the other team? It derives from the old chestnut – the Bradman question – that was designed for new immigrants way-back-when and much discussed in the media.

I quote: “ At issue was the necessary national cultural knowledge for an aspiring citizen contained in the test-prepping document Becoming an Australian Citizen.  Here the reader learnt that Australians like sport and are proud of their achievements in it (especially in cricket) and that `Sir Donald Bradman was the greatest cricket batsman of all time’.”

The Bradman question has gone by the wayside, but the “nation-sport nexus” continues. At the very minimum, governments seem to think that new immigrants need formally to be advised that Australians love their spectator sports. As if that itself were not daily, and everywhere, obvious. As if, too, it’s necessary for their adaptation and acculturation (if no longer “assimilation”).

My concern here, as ever, is the use in the title of the word “barracking” and a simple pondering thought about when the term might be deployed for whatever purpose in the circus of US  presidential pre-election fever.

From where we stand now, it seems rather inevitable.


14 07 2010

Diplo-speak – the public language of diplomacy –  is a particular sub-set of language (I hesitate to use the term dialect) that operates on at least two fronts: for those in-the-know; and for the rest of us.  In many ways, it resembles a code, able to be deciphered by some; closed to others. As I’m not in-the-know, I can speculate only on what the terms of diplo-speak might mean.

For example, when relations are said to be “cool”, that’s very different to their being “warm”. Similarly, relations might be said to be “thawing”, and this suggests that earlier, they’d been very much colder. “Chilly” fits in there somewhere, as does “cordial”. I’m not quite at the point of drawing up a gradient with the various terms notched onto it. I’m a little confused about the extreme ends of the gradient for they seem to suggest similarly bad relations – very “chilly”, and very “heated” both seem to be one or two steps from calling off diplomatic relations.

The Middle East is a great site (not exclusively so, of course) for the exploration of these and related terms. Remember when they used to refer to being “on track to peace talks”? And later, those same peace talks were placed “on the horizon”, which is a good deal further away than on the “track”.

It probably bespeaks the current temperature that now the language has moved from cold/chilly/warm to more geological terms like “rift”, “shift” and “fissure”. Recent talks between Obama and Netanyahu appear to be warm-ish, but the very effort displayed by both parties to give this impression somewhat undercuts the impact. Apparently, the meeting between the two heads of state was “almost tainted” in the lead-up by a leak that claimed a “tectonic rift”  separated the two countries. “Rift” was later adjusted to “shift”. Subsequently, US officials added:  “there is no fissure”.

So, we’re out of temperature metaphors for the moment and into geological ones. It would seem, from the gradient implied above, that a “rift” is more serious than a “shift” which is more serious than a “fissure”.

Does any of it matter? Only in so far as we all deploy and react to language to mediate our understandings of events.

Even apparently minor features – such as the seeming disfluency  of a momentary self-correction – may have more significance than we know. Obama is on record as having said:

“We strongly believe that given its size, its history, the region that it’s in and the threats that are leveled against us — against it — that Israel has unique security requirements. .. It’s got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region. And that’s why we remain unwavering in our commitment to Israel’s security.”

The disfluency occurs in the first sentence:  “.. threats that are levelled against us – against it -…”. This “us” revised into “it” seems like a slip that might suggest that Obama aligns his country’s interests with Israel’s. As such, it’s reminiscent of the famous Kennedy Ich Bin ein Berliner speech. Such a reading would have the amendment – “against it” – serving as a phrase in apposition, adjectival in function, adding non-essential information.

On the other hand, is it in fact what it appears to be – a self-correction? Meaning – don’t think we’re aligned, because we’re not.

Can we know? Do those in-the-know know?

If there’s one abiding feature of diplo-speak, it is its slipperiness,  the wiggle-room factor. Essential for later deniability.

Semantic Minefields

21 05 2010

This is the title given to Clark Hoyt’s op-ed column in the May 16, 2010 N Y Times Week in Review section (p.10) (see ) and I can do no better. He makes two points, both of them timely and important.

First, he explores the fracas surrounding the names or words chosen to refer to events, wherein dissension or controversy resides. He begins thus:

If the Obama administration takes out a radical Muslim cleric hiding in Yemen, would it be a “targeted killing” or an “assassination?” Was the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina a “natural” disaster” or a “man-made” one? Should new construction authorized by Israel in East Jerusalem be called Jewish “housing” or “settlements”?

They certainly have their work cut out for them, they who choose the words to represent events in the media. And arguably, as information dissemination increases its clout through constantly updated electronic media, such representations increasingly heighten their stake in the public perception war.

For instance, I’ve long  decried the term suicide bomber – whether in news items about Israel, Iraq,  Bali, or anywhere else. Yes, such individuals are prepared to die for their beliefs, and that’s suicide. But their death is not the primary goal; it’s an unfortunate (for them) side-consequence of their major objective, which is killing others. Better known as “homicide”. Calling them “suicide bombers”, then, is almost euphemistic, as it disguises the slaughter of others under the veneer of self-chosen suicide.

The second point in Clark Hoyt’s op-ed is how, over time, and through massive media exposure, single words or terms tend to accrue particular clusters of meanings. It’s a version of “mud sticks”. The name “Katrina” now cues much more than the hurricane; depending on context, it may include the failed levees, the neglect and the scandals about the rescue efforts, the tragedy in racial and social terms.  Think of what “Tampa” has come to connote in Australia.

This process is not unlike metonymy which is where a name or a word for one object or concept is used to stand for something else to which it is related, often something larger of which it is a part. In this way, “throne” can cue royalty, one’s “pocket” can cue economic status, “drink” can refer to any kind of alcohol. It’s a similar process when the “White House” or “Washington” is intended and taken to mean the current US administration; or “Number 10”, the British equivalent. In Australia, “The Lodge”  has lost some of this connectiveness, largely I suspect because of the aversion of some PMs to living in Canberra.

Freshly Ground Black What?

21 04 2010

Saturday 17 April. Everyone surely knows now about the fiasco at Penguin publishers. Who would have thought that a recipe for pasta would end up costing about $20,000? A proof-reader (I’m wondering if s/he’s looking for a new job) somehow let “freshly ground black people” (in place of “black pepper”) slip through the nets

The Penguin Group Australia’s Head of Publishing acknowledged the error, calling it “a silly typo” but also admitting to being “mortified” and wondering how anyone could find it offensive. The printed copies of the book (The Pasta Bible) have been pulped (ouch) , but if you have already  bought one, and you’re “small-minded enough to complain”,  they say they’ll “happily” refund your money.

It’s a lovely story and arguably very pregnant with discussion fodder. Some appear below:

  • There’s some dispute as to whether this kind of error should be called a “typo”, with purists arguing that strictly speaking a typo is a typographical error – such as when one might type in wueen for queen, the typo having its source in the proximity of “Q” and “W” on the keyboard. Personally, I have a much looser/broader/open/more relaxed and tolerant definition of typo –  to wit: any error that appears in the final text that was not an intended part of earlier drafts. There’s a whole lot of room for possibility in there. In any case, it  involves some assumptions: such as,  that the author of the pasta dish was in fact recommending freshly ground pepper. I won’t apologize for there being assumptions, because in my view, these are an integral part of establishing meaning.
  • Let’s assume for the moment that it’s a QWERTY-based error. I’d love to know when it slipped in. Was it there from the beginning? Is it what the author originally, if mistakenly, wrote? Or did it slip in further down the track, as the text passed through the hands and eyes of multiple editors, readers and proofers  in the publication process. Truth is, it takes a village to raise a book, not just a child.
  • So far I’ve been talking about the mechanical processes by which a typo might arrive.  There’s also the notion of the Freudian Slip:  the term given to a verbal mistake thought to reveal a repressed belief, thought, or emotion. Called “Freudian” after the great man, not because he was particularly prone to them (though he may have been; indeed given his thing about repressions,  he likely was) but who’s said to have noted them and brought them to the attention of the public imagination.
  • Of course, no one is surprised that Penguin would call it “a silly typo”. After all, at one level, that’s exactly what it is. On the other hand, it’s somewhat disingenuous to claim that offence is incomprehensible. Why else would you go in for the pulping as a reaction? You might say this is Political Correctness gone mad. But persecution and maltreatment of people because of their colour has a long, long history. And it’s not even history (as in things-of-the-past).  It continues apace, notwithstanding a black man being in the White House. Want to read more on the subject? Try Randall Kennedy’s (2003) Nigger. The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. (Vintage Books: New York).

No doubt Penguin is aware that efforts to minimize the broadcast reach of the fiasco may well have the opposite effect. Better all round to bite the bullet and move on.
My final word on the subject:  it better bloody be a good pasta dish!