Foreskins – an unusual point of harmony

9 03 2011

There aren’t many topics that bring Jews and Moslems into the unfamiliar territory of agreement. But there is one, and it’s just come up again, in San Francisco, where Jewish and Moslem groups are mobilizing and strategizing about how they will rally against proposed new legislation that will seek to criminalize male circumcision. It’s a topic where both faiths see eye to eye, as the riualized custom has a deeply embedded history, with cultural, community and religious associations.

You may well be thinking – what is my interest here? Am I trying to suggest that if agreement can be so easy on the delicate matter of the foreskin, then surely allegedly intractable points of contention in the Middle East might also be potentially open to agreement?

Short answer: No. In fact, my interest is less political than linguistic. I note that the leader of the anti-circumcision group in San Francisco is a self-described “intactivist”  – an activist in favour of well, staying intact.

It’s a clever word: like the Pro-Life lobby, it harnesses the positives (intact-ness), rather than promoting the contrariness (anti-abortion; anti-anything). It finds a “nice” way (if somewhat indirect, but that comes with the territory of euphemism) to avoid the word “circumcision”, which is very, well,  in-your-face.

It does make you wonder what name the anti-intactivists will come up with, to lend their cause support and energy.


3 03 2011

We’re getting used to –stans. Since the collapse of the Soviet, Communist world over 20 years ago,  what once were parts of a large Russian-controlled empire fractured into a collection of, well,   –stans. Like  Kazakhstan,   Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,  Turkmenistan,  Uzbekistan. The suffix –stan, from Persian, means “place of”. Hence within Iraq we have Kurdistan – place of Kurds.

The proliferation of –stans (remember, we already had Pakistan and Afganistan) inevitably led to word play. There was Londonistan (2006) , a book by Melanie Phillips, UK journalist, concerned about the spread of Islam into the West. And there was Absurdistan (2006), which according to Wikipedia, is a term sometimes used to satirically describe a country in which absurdity is the norm, especially in its public authorities and government. In linguistics, this is sometimes called a placeholder name, functioning rather like a pronoun in that it stands in place of a noun. In this case it stands for mostly former Soviet bloc nations which in the opinion of the user of the term, have descended into a state of the absurd.

So it was not a huge leap, to read in the review by Barry Oakley in The Australian Literary Review of Feb 2011, of a recent book by Jane Miller, Crazy Age: Thoughts on Being Old (Virago), a review entitled “On the Road to Senilistan”. Following the trend in portable  -stans (see above), Senilistan has to denote a place of old people. The medical dictionary (www. tells us what we already know: Senile: 1. Pertaining to old age. 2. Pertaining to the physical decline associated with old age. 3. Pertaining to the mental decline once  associated with old age….etc etc, all of it depressing.

It derives from Latin senilis, meaning old age, old men, grey hair. Most likely it early on functioned as a euphemism or polite form for “old” (think our “senior citizens”). The meaning “weak or infirm from age” didn’t start to appear until the mid 19th century. And as is the way with euphemisms, sooner or later (usually sooner), the stigma associated with the original word (in this case, being old) starts to infect the new word, and it beging to accrue the earlier  stigmatized associations (senility). According to Barry Oakley, the reviewer,

“Old age is a kind of temporal Albania. Once leaving the civilised 60s, one enters a region where infrastructure starts to break down. A hip or a knee goes, but one shuffles on until, if you’re lucky, the far border is reached. If the 70s are Third World, the 80s are Senilistan: a falling-apart land, unpredictable and chaotic”(see

Clearly the term Senilistan is wryly comic way of laughing at the inevitable (no, not if you join your local Acquarobics)  process of decline, demise, deterioration and any other dismal “d” word you care to think of. Oakley’s review is a very good read, and Jane Miller’s book promises to be a good one too, but where they may come or go, the term Senilistan – certainly in a quickly ageing global population – is likely to be a keeper.

Bill Smoothing

16 07 2010

Remember Bill Posters?  He of the inclination to deface walls and billboarding. You don’t see him much these days, but in my youth he was well known for his trespassing.

Well, I’ve just discovered, he has a cousin – Bill Smoothing.

Only joking… here’s a definition of “bill smoothing” from my Energy Provider’s website:

Bill Smoothing is a payment plan that helps you balance your budget by spreading the estimated total cost of your yearly energy bills across equal monthly instalments. You will continue to receive bills as normal, with automatic payments debited from your bank account, credit union, building society or credit card … each month.

Makes sense, especially in the current climate of mounting energy costs. You end up paying the same of course, but by “smoothing” out your payments, it’s more manageable. One big quarterly payment certainly isn’t “smooth”. I’d say very rough indeed.

Apology #3: Rahm Emanuel apologizes for his “fucking retarded” comment.

17 06 2010

Mid last year, in a private strategy meeting, the sometimes foul-mouthed and often controversial Obama Administration’s Chief of Staff at the White House, Rahm Emanuel , used the phrase “fucking retarded” about a group of liberals.

The event was referred to in the US press in the inimical words “ [expletive] retarded”. It was first reported in the Wall Street Journal and followed by a predictable uproar of outrage primarily among advocates of Disabilities groups. Then Emanuel apologized in private to Tim Shriver,  Special Olympics Chief Executive, who had written a complaint to the Chief of Staff on the day it happened.  Shriver reported the fact of the apology and the fact of his acceptance of it. A week later,  Emanuel met with a group of Disabilities advocates, who emerged impressed by the Chief of Staff’s apparent sincerity.

So let’s  have a  look at Emanuel’s apology. I was unable to find a verbatim text, probably because it occurred in a private conversation. The White House subsequently announced that the apology was accepted, adding “The White House remains committed to addressing the concerns and needs of Americans living with disabilities and recognizes that derogatory remarks demean us all.”

Here again is my 5-point apology test.

“Sorry for how I spoke to you in front of the boss yesterday (naming behaviour). I was totally out of line (accepting responsibility). It had been a very hard day (explaining) but it shouldn’t have happened (not justifying). Please accept my apology (asking forgiveness) and if there’s anything I can do to make up for it, please say so” (offering to make amends).

So how does Emanuel’s apology rate?

  1. Is the behaviour being apologized for named?

Assesssment:  It would seem, from the response of those present, that the behaviour – speaking offensively about people living with mental disability – was named and agreed.

Not so the more public White House Press statement, following Emanuel’s private apology. “The White House (so depersonalized that no one is standing up to be counted) remains committed (“remains” is a clever addition – it suggests that their good attitude pre-existed the reprimand)to addressing the concerns and needs of Americans living with disabilities (very PC: ” [Americans] living with disabilities” deliberately puts their humanity first, before their disability, and uses language that the people themselves favour) and recognizes that derogatory remarks demean us all (being so broad and all-encompassing at the same time dilutes  and deligitimizes the specific pain involved).

2. Is responsibility accepted?

Assessment: From reports, it would seem that yes, responsibility was accepted.

Peter Berns, one of those present at the meeting where the apology was given, was reported to have said: “Emanuel seemed genuinely surprised by the outrage he generated and told the advocates that he planned to discuss the situation with his three children so that they could learn from his mistakes… My sense was that this had opened up his eyes in a way that was significant and that the reaction has really touched him… He expressed his apologies and regrets. It struck me as very sincere and heartfelt on his part. I did not at all have the impression that he was going through the paces.”

Of course, you can take the cynical view and figure that the Disabilities lobby group saw this as an apportunity to get nationwide sympathetic publicity. Berg admitted the meeting with Emanuel gave the group a chance  “to establish a personal relationship that we didn’t have before”.

As follow-up, advocates said they expected a positive reception at the White House regarding upcoming proposed legislation. According to “Rosa’s law”, references to “mental retardation” would be replaced with the term “intellectual disability” throughout federal law.

3. Is the account more than a justification?

Assessment:  Yes. It would seem Emanuel pleaded ignorance of the power of his derogatory words.  For one with a reputation for using offensivce language, this lacks some credibility. However,  it is inherent in apologies that they require  face-humbling,  and whilesoever we have difficulty distinguishing the act from the pretense, the latter may be enough.

4. Is forgiveness sought?

Assessment:  Yes. He seems to have been regretful of causing offense and hurt, not just of having been caught out.

5. Are amends being offered?

Assessment: Yes. We can take it as highly unlikely that in future, in public at least, Emanuel will be quite so flippant in his terms of abuse. He had another meeting with self-advocates and disabilities group representatives, who were encouraged to tell their own narratives of personal hurt in the face of discrimination. One of them considered the meeting “a historic moment”, wondering whether “a group of self-advocates has ever ventured into the inner sanctum of the White House”.

Emanuel promised his support to end the use of the R-word, beginning by taking  the Special Olympics pledge which reads: “I pledge and support the elimination of the derogatory use of the R-word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.” Emanuel added, “this is so important, and I’m glad to support it.”

Of course, it’s always possible that Obama spoke sternly and privately with Emanuel and told him to “fix it”, not wanting another scandal or torrent of hostility from an increasingly disenchanted citizenry. We can’t really know this. All we can do is calculate the attempt to address the face issues entailed in an apology. I’ve scored him 4.5 (I’ve docked 0.5 for the White House statement) out of a possible 5,

Have I been fair?  Too generous perhaps? Too naive? Tell me what you think!

New Word: decanting

6 06 2010

Here’s a new word that came to my attention recently.

decant – pronounced, I think, as dee-cant, with equal stress on each of the two syllables, and related to the word decanter (where the stress is on the medial syllable),  being a vessel for holding liquid, and the thing from which one decants. Well, the decant that I was told about is a metaphorical take on the old wine decanting. It came about through an office memo in a government department advising staff about the forthcoming move to another building, and providing a protocol of tasks to be completed and by when. Thus, one line read “meet the transition team – the people who will be helping you with decanting, change management and other issues relating to your move”. At this stage I’m of the view that the word is rather euphemistic – moving is one big headache for most people who do it, not least the removalists. It all seems much more polished and do-able when it’s a matter of decanting.  I predict we’ll be seeing a lot more of this kind of decanting.