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.

Westchester Widow

20 05 2010

Unpacking Personals: Westchester Widow

This advert appeared in the Personals  of The New York Review of Books, October 8-9, 2009, Vol LVI, No 15.

Westchester widow seeks friendship with man, 75-85, who loves Mozart, especially the Marriage of Figaro. Contact etc.

Google tells me that “Westchester County is a suburban county located in the U.S. state of New York. Westchester covers an area of 450 square miles and has a diverse population…” There’s another such place in Pennsylvania, but it’d be less likely, all things considered. Being an outsider, I’m not sure what socio-economic cue “Westchester widow” would give off for an insider, but I’d guess (it’s only a guess) something like “of comfortable, independent means”. It feels rather formulaic – like she’s giving out her gender (female), her marital status (widow) and socio-economic class. And if she’s travelling down to the Met for her regular opera fix, she’s likely to have a healthy bank balance. Note she’s seeking “friendship”, a loose term if ever there was, especially so since the advent of electronic social networking, though I doubt our widow is using it in the Facebook sense. “Friend” can suggest with or without benefits.  All things considered, it probably means companionship –  “a person to attend opera with”. Given that the few words of a Personals ad are all the space she has to present herself and her quest, what does her love of Mozart say about her? Because we surely have to infer that she herself feels the love of Mozart that she wishes her quarry to have. Does she perhaps identify with Mozart’s Countess, sadly recalling a philandering husband,  urging all to be festive and merry, while an accompanying solo oboe almost weeps as she sings? What might all this, the passions as well as the tensions, convey to her would-be companion?  Note too how few stipulations she has: all he has to be is elderly and love Mozart, especially Figaro. What if he loves Mozart, but not particularly Figaro? Would he have a chance? What would a love of Figaro actually mean, in terms of human characteristics? What if he had such characteristics, but still didn’t love Figaro? Is a love of Mozart able to be faked? My issue with this ad, apart from the above ambivalences is: surely an elderly widow of refined musical taste would in reality harbour more must-haves and must-not-haves than what she’s stated? What if he has all the requirements… plus nose hair? Unlikely, I’m informed by one-who-knows, who says a love of Mozart and the presence of nose hair are mutually incompatible.  What if he has all requisites, but  also a police record (say, for axe-murdering)? The essential question, then, becomes: At what point of personal unpleasantness does the love of Mozart etc cease to forgive all else?

The Dutch Disease

13 05 2010

A headline in yesterday’s The Australian (12 May, 2010, p.3 ) caught my eye. It said:  “Watch Out for the Dutch Disease”.  You read along a little in the article by Glenda  Korporaal  and discover, if you didn’t already know, what the Dutch Disease is.

It was first used in 1977 by The Economist magazine. A reference to the aftermath of the discovery of North Sea Oil and gas, when Holland allegedly neglected its manufactory economy in favour of exploiting its natural resources. Since then the term has come to mean the overall economic impact an over-reliance on natural resources (which, after all, are finite).

Typically I’m interested more in the language than the economy, and that’s what drew me to the phrase in the first place. It’s not the first time, of course, that English has used the word Dutch for idiomatic or metaphoric meanings. Consider Dutch courage, and double Dutch . Many of these are  disparaging, reinforcing the notion that xenophobia is an innate quality of our species.  Not all however – consider the more neutral go Dutch.

I wonder whether centuries from now we’ll have long forgotten Holland’s North Sea discoveries, their exploitation and the economic impact of the aftermath, and perhaps  be using the expression for some mutated meaning – like, putting all your eggs in one basket, or some such, or then again, something entirely different.  Most people use such terms with any inkling of their historical origin or the distance they have travelled since first being incorporated in the language. Consider for example terms like a dark horse, or a field day, or throw down the gauntlet. These work perfectly well in modern contexts though they have surely moved their moorings more than once over the centuries.

As for the Dutch disease, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.


28 04 2010

Sometimes I wonder where I have been all my life, or at least the last decade. Last night,  I encountered for the first time the word dogging. It came up in a police/law show on the channel 13th Street, called Close to Home, which I like because it always offers a tight little narrative, the good guys always win, and you can turn the TV off feeling satisfied that all’s good with the world for another night. Entirely facile and illusory, but there you have it. Anyway, in this episode, the activity of dogging came up. I quickly gathered what it meant – having sex with anonymous strangers in public places while untold numbers of other strangers watch voyeuristically online. That’s what I gleaned from the storyline. But I went to Google to check. Maybe I got it wrong. No,  I didn’t. Google spat out 1,300,000 hits. Hence my question to myself: where have I been?   Now I have other questions. This dogging is a highly internet-mediated activity: the way the couple comes together in the first place; the fact that thousands can watch in private. So, did the internet create it? Or did it simply channel an existing predilection in a new direction?  What, in other words, were these people doing – the ones who now engage in dogging, and the ones watching – before the internet gave them this great new opportunity?

range anxiety

15 04 2010

This is the worry that the electric car you are driving is running out of battery charge. I myself don’t drive an electric car, as yet, but I can understand the anxiety, because I experience it in regard to my laptop when I’m not electrically connected. Even though there’s a little icon I can click on to tell me the current status of the battery charge, I’m not able to relax. I know that as soon as I turn my back as it were, the remaining charge will shoot down to zero and I’ll be left low-and-dry. I learned about range anxiety from an article called “Language for a New World, by Richard Chang, writing for The New York Times (14/4/10). Chang says that with the drive to alternative energy sources, new language is creeping in. Like range anxiety; and the diva, the name given to the battery at one stage of development  “because of the way it has to be treated”; the drag count , a calculation that, for instance, can mean that streamlining the side mirrors will save on drag and thereby slightly increase the battery’s range (every bit counts); the “limp home” feature, a small reserve in the battery in case of emergency.  In regard to the umbrella term range anxiety, Chang quips that it’s all about who’s in charge – you or your battery.