Thursday, March 10, 2011

Parvum Opus 385: The Untainted Word

Dulce, utile, et decorum est pro patria scribere


Playing With Accordion Words

Rich Lederer sent along his piece about “accordion words”, close cousin to portmanteau words and syllepsis. I’ve excerpted parts of “Playing with Accordion Words” here. And do see The King’s Speech if you haven’t already.

Garnering twelve Academy Award nominations and four Oscars, including Best Picture, The King's Speech had its coronation, on February 28, as the most honored film of the year. Among its many excellencies is the double entendre in its title. The word Speech in The King's Speech means the speaking of George VI, the stammerer who did not want to become king. At the same time and in the same space, the word Speech means the particular address, in 1939, that King George VI delivered to his British subjects exhorting them to join in battle against the Germans….

Like people, words grow after they are born. Once created, words seldom sit still and remain the same forever. Some words expand to take over larger territories: Once fabulous meant "resembling or based on a fable." Later came the expanded meaning, "incredible and marvelous." A holiday first signified "a holy day," but modern holidays include secular days, such as Valentine's Day* and Independence Day. ….

…The word gay** … can designate all homosexuals, as in "gay rights," or only male homosexuals, as in "the gay and lesbian community."

Business started out as a general term meaning literally "busy-ness." After several centuries of life, business picked up the narrower meaning of "commercial dealings." In 1925 Calvin Coolidge used the word in both its generalized an specialized senses when he stated, "The chief business of the American people is business." …

I have made up the term "accordion words" to describe these double-duty words. In the examples that follow, I list the broader meaning first and the narrower meaning second:…

· Gentleman***: (1) a male: "Ladies and gentlemen . . . ." (2) a refined man.

· Instrument: (1) something used to achieve an end: "Lord, let me be Thy instrument on this earth." (2) something used to produce music: "Bill Clinton's and Lisa Simpson's instrument is the saxophone."**** ...

· Segregate (similarly discriminate*****): (1) to set apart (2) to set apart on the basis of race.

· Temperature*****: (1) a degree of heat (2) too high a degree of heat: “You have a temperature.”…

Samuel Goldwyn once observed, "A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on." Obviously the movie mogul used verbal to mean "oral," as do most speakers of American English. Butverbal (Latin verbum, "word") communication involves words spoken or written, as in "I'm trying to improve my verbal skills."****** In this sense, Goldwyn's Goldwynism isn't so funny after all.

Think of oral hygiene if you can’t remember that ora means mouth. This loss of distinction in meanings is not only a loss to the language, it ruins a great Goldwyn story, as well as confusing the difference between oral and verbal sex.

I don’t know if this qualifies as an accordion word, but note that in the new translation of The New American Bible, the word booty has been replaced by spoils of war because people today only associate the word with rear end or sex (as in the movie “Booty Call”), because they hear a lot about rear ends and never read anything that might contain the word with the earlier meaning. Of course, the average reader also wouldn’t understand spoils as anything other than ruins or rots.

*Well, there was a Saint Valentine.

** I recently met a woman named Gay, a name that is probably never given to babies anymore, unfortunately. In the past even men were sometimes called Gay, usually short for Gaylord. According the government, the name seems to have disappeared, at least from the top 1,000 most popular names, after 1969. We don’t even have a replacement for the adjective gay (“Our hearts were young and gay”). Sure, you’ll find synonyms, but it’s a sad loss to the vocabulary.

***A professor from someplace in Mittel Europa once asked our class to define “gentleman” and I raised my hand and tentatively offered, “A gentleman is someone who is always kind to people?” He said “No! A gentleman is someone whose clothes and shoes are always clean and neat, even if they are old.” He meant a person of a certain class. I meant the American definition.

****Oh, never mind.

*****Often today people do not understand that the ability to discriminate is a necessary function of the mind.

******One of the cases where we used to be reprimanded for using the word in its narrower meaning: Everybody has a temperature. You mean he has a fever.”

The Tainted Word

In the current exhibit of garden paintings by American Impressionists at a Cincinnati museum, the person who wrote the notes for each painting fell victim to the modern compulsion to impose a certain political slant on art. A lovely painting by Edmund Tarbell, “In the Orchard”, 1891, depicts his wife and relatives on a sunny summer day in Dorchester, Massachusetts; the orchard is unmowed; it is a peaceful, informal scene. The notes posted on the wall next to this and the other paintings generally say something about technique and training, compare these paintings to the French Impressionists’ work of the period, and discuss the rising popularity of formal and informal gardening. But the annotater couldn’t resist saying that these people hanging out in the back yard are “untainted by grimmer realities of contemporary American urbanization, labor conflict and social strife”. Well, when you barbecue out in the backyard with your friends and family, don’t you feel untainted by grimmer realities? That’s what the beer is for.

You could say the same thing about every painting in the world:

Mona Lisa smiles as if unaware of the Borgias.

“Starry Night” by Van Gogh cavalierly ignores the rotting corpses on earth.

Remington’s “Cracker Cowboys” ride their horses on the job callous to the plight of the unemployed.

I think the person who wrote those placards was still queasy from the influence of the bitter Goya etchings that preceded the garden collection. Or possibly the writer was aware that Dorchester is no longer a pleasant semi-rural suburb of Boston but an urbanized neighborhood replete with social strife and more gang members than fruit trees.

At the exhibit, I heard a woman viewing “In the Orchard” reiterate the sentiment of the placard (and it is sentiment) as if it were received truth, and the man with her said, “Yeah, someone had to carry the chairs out.” Judging by my experience, the man in the painting probably carried the chairs out, or if that’s too sexist for a modern sensibilities, let’s assume the ladies helped carry the chairs outside.

The people viewing the paintings and writing the explanatory notes proclaim their social “awareness” and thus their virtue. They must be conflicted about the fact that they even like art, which requires leisure to produce and to see and appreciate, and often requires wealth to procure and preserve. But artists themselves are not all obsessed with economics and class warfare.

Further evidence of the blindness of the writer appears in the note for another garden painting, which says the woman in that garden is wearing a black dress. The dress is not black, it is dark green. If you think it’s just the painterly indication of shadow, using colors to depicit blacks and whites, not so, because there are very definitely black cuffs at the end of the green sleeves.

Everything isn’t a matter of black and white.

To depict the deep reality of one moment in time, you don’t have to simultaneously invoke something different or distant.

Those immersed in grimmer realities of social strife are oblivious to the possibilities of peace in a quiet grove.

Nonetheless, I will introduce a brief political comment on another work of art, the popular crime trilogy by late Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson, who wrote The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I read all three long books, and hope that his common-law widow is able to produce more manuscripts. (She’s in a legal wrangle with Larsson’s family.) The books are engrossing and, like the late Tony Hillerman’s books, show the eye of the reporter: clear, detailed writing with not much sense of humor. Sometimes there’s too much detail; I suppose if you’re Swedish and understand Swedish politics of the last few decades, you’d get more out of the story. But I enjoyed the bits about computer hacking even though I don’t have that much technical knowledge.

The center of the books is Lisbet Salander, a young woman who endures, and avenges, extreme and repeated abuse. She is a super-hero of improbable survival. I will bypass the question of writers (and movie producers) who supposedly object to torture but who depict torture in much detail.

What I wonder is, why Larsson, the very modern, secular Swede with a Western ethic, never refers to the large influx of Muslims into Scandinavia who feel justified in raping and otherwise abusing what they think of as whorish Western women. Larsson’s plots are mired in the fallout of Cold War entanglement with aged Russians spies, and with Eastern European sex traffickers, real enough but perhaps not the major social problem there at this moment in time.

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