Tag Archives: Language

About the Volcano

A fascinating fact about Eyjafjallajokull (here’s the pronunciation):

Even though the ash cloud hovers at between 15,000 and 30,000 feet, higher than most airplanes fly, planes can’t simply fly below the ash because the volcano “has generated a new weather system made of glass: its own ‘maelstrom of microscopic volcanic glass shards‘ that liquify and go molten inside passing airplane engines, causing failure.”  (Link.)

The stuff of alien worlds, no?  Here are some beautiful pics (from this site):

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Weekend Tabs

Greenspan, Summers Optimistic About Economy.

Theory of mind, intuition, and (the English) language.

Is it weird if I like Bruce more for his preference for redheads?

IQ and one bad habit+ questions of causation.

Entrepreneurs love to learn, hate to be taught.

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As in: Sucks to Your Assmar?

Interesting point:

Power and the ‘R’ word
Letter to the Editor
By Pete Reimers

It wasn’t long ago that saying something sucks would garner disapproving looks and perhaps a stern talking-to. Despite the fact that “sucks” refers to what many would consider a deviant sex act, it has become a common part of our vocabulary. It’s widespread usage in our vernacular has rendered the word largely inoffensive and powerless.

Etymologically, the word “retarded” is synonymous with “hindered,” “delayed” or “underdeveloped.” Thus, when people say, “Parietals are retarded,” they are, in effect, stating that the rationale behind said policy is underdeveloped. This is a perfectly legitimate usage of the word (and arguably an accurate assessment of the situation).

When a word becomes taboo, it only becomes more powerful. To remove the power of the word, one must remove its stigma. If we embrace the word and use it where it is etymologically appropriate, it will cease to offend, and its stigma will disappear. As such, I hereby pledge to step up my efforts to remove the power of the “R” word by using it as often as I can. Because why would we want to give a word we don’t like more power? That just strikes me as an underdeveloped line of reasoning. I’d even call it retarded.

Pete Reimers
Hesburgh Libraries
Mar. 3


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Delightful: Idioms from Around the World

National Geographic just published a book called I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears and Other Intriguing Idioms From Around the World.

Not hanging noodles on your ears: Russian – not kidding

To live like a maggot in bacon: German – live in luxury

To reheat cabbage: Italian – rekindle an old flame

Like fingernail and dirt: Spanish, Mexico – well suited

Bang your butt on the ground: French – die laughing

Plucked like a chicken: Yiddish – exhausted

To bite the elbow: Russian – to cry over spilt milk

Smoke from 7 orifices of head: Chinese – to be furious

To become naked: Japanese – to go broke, poor

An ant milker: Arabic – a miser, tight wad

Give it to someone with cheese: Spanish – to deceive

Squeezer of limes: Hindi – self invited guest, idler

To break wind into silk: French – live the life of Riley

By Jag Bhalla; illustrated by Julia Suits.  HT BoingBoing.

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Unitary Executive

Yesterday at an AFF panel debating the future of Executive power under Obama Gene Healy noted that the phrase “unitary executive” is primarily associated with Bush 43, particularly w/ his “torture” policies.  Gene leaned loosely on the Federalist papers for the origin of the phrase, but later told me that the evolved phrase is synonymous simply with “strong.”

I have a hard time with this.  The point of a term of art is that a word or phrase keeps a consistent meaning so we can communicate effectively.  It’s cheating to cite to the Fed papers and at the same time claim that the meaning has evolved so that the original phrase is unrecognizable.   

The phrase was Hamilton encouraging the Framers to let one person be responsible for ultimate decisions.  Spooked by a tyrranous king, some founding fathers suggested hobbling the Exec w/ a co-presidency, or a joint branch like a mini-legislature.  Hamilton pointed out that if there’s no single person responsible for decision-making at the margins then no one will be accountable and we’ll all switch to passive voice as decisions simply…don’t get made.  If, for instance, a foreign army attacks the US and the structure of gov’t restrains the other branches from responding, Hamilton’s “unitary executive” recommendation provides that the one guy voted into this power would have to decide what to do.  He has counsel and advisors, of course, but ultimately one guy celebrates or takes the fall.  It’s a decision-making role.  Hamilton just pointed out that decision by committee doesn’t work, and it’s that kind of nontransparent lack of accountability that leads to tyranny.

Gene claims that the phrase has come to mean “powerful.”  The new unitary excecutive, then, is just powerful when compared with the other branches.  Singularly strong, if I understand it correctly.

I get that meanings evolve, but this has evolved in two ways that separate it completely from the original meaning.  First, we’re looking at a shift in the meaning’s scope.  Where Hamilton’s meaning was intra-branch, this proposed evolution spans the entire government.  The Executive has always been the only branch permitted to “act” (whereas loosely the Legislature funds and the Judicial branch provides the king’s thumbs-up or -down at the margins).  So Hamilton was just saying: If two people at once are equally charged with “action” then we will never know who’s doing what.  

This new meaning implies that the Executive subsumes powers from the entire government like some sort of vortex.  This latter “unitary” implies that the government is just converging in one spot.  Which makes sense, except that Gene admits that Bush’s presidency was a kind of 2+man show.  So the original meaning must have ceased to exist and been replaced whole cloth by this evolution; Bush’s unitary presidency wasn’t “unitary” at all.

What’s more is that spurring the torture talks was among the least unitary things Bush did, and among the most unitary parts of Obama’s first 100 days.  Bush was like a many-headed beast in that respect, so the only people accountable for drawing the line between what is and is not torture were the lawyers named on the memos.  

Meanwhile Obama has made himself singularly responsible in that department.  Though he now claims he has no intention of indicting the memo writers, legal action murmurs persist from the White House.  Bush delegated to the point that his lack of accountable decision making became a fault.   Obama on the other hand has thoroughly disincentivized an active cabinet and a forthcoming Justice Dept.  With two branches now completely aligned the only check on Obama’s singular power is the slow arm of the Supreme Court.  

Our founding fathers envisioned a government with some power overlap in the Venn diagram of gov’t.  The President should be able to act, decisively, and the Legislature may choose not to fund his choice.  In that case the President directs the immediate response to a crisis, but the sustained reaction falls out of unitary hands.  The Legislature decides what prolonged course of action the gov’t will take.  And, ultimately, if everyone is outside the lines then the Court remands the whole thing back w/ a directive against a given avenue.  

Part of the point of having a strong one-accountable-guy Executive model is the added benefit of forging a kind of ambition cantilever.  The President’s ability to act quickly when necessary is among his only major check on other branches that survives the periods when the Exec/Leg branches are aligned.  For instance right now the veto is a pretty impotent tool when everyone kowtows to this particularly messianic — ahem, unitary — leader.  But the power to act retains its strength if, say, a company needs nationalizing and no one else is poised (or morally inclined) to seize.*

So is it possible for a phrase to change and absolutely replace its previous meaning?  It happened to “due process,” I suppose.  I just say: If your meaning is the exact opposite of the original meaning, then don’t cite the original sources.  The difference is primarily in scope, but the differences at the two iterations’ cores are so fundamental that it’s effectively a totally new phrase.  

On a broader scale I get frustrated when we don’t define the words we’re using.  Democracy?  What does that mean?  “Democracy” in Iraq is different from sought “democracy” in Cuba, which is different still from what we have here (in fact a REPUBLIC, but dem w/ a big “D”).  Clearly meaning is all context, but the semantic drift phenomenon makes conversations more complicated than we admit.  I love language and love how it evolves, but just cite to the relevant source.  Only if we keep track of the context can we keep track of words’ definitions.  Only then can we even start to discuss a viable recommendation moving forward.  


*I’m a nerd, I know, but are we basically making an argument here that GM is blighted?  Is this tacit nationalization really just eminent domain by another name?

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Slippery Slopes, Language

Another torture stance, from Mother Jones, care of Daily Dish:

I don’t care about the Geneva Conventions or U.S. law. I don’t care about the difference between torture and “harsh treatment.” I don’t care about the difference between uniformed combatants and terrorists. I don’t care whether it “works.” I oppose torture regardless of the current state of the law; I oppose even moderate abuse of helpless detainees; I oppose abuse of criminal suspects and religious heretics as much as I oppose it during wartime; and I oppose it even if it produces useful information.

The whole point of civilization is as much moral advancement as it is physical and technological advancement.

But that moral progress comes slowly and very, very tenuously. In the United States alone, it took centuries to decide that slavery was evil, that children shouldn’t be allowed to work 12-hour days on power looms, and that police shouldn’t be allowed to beat confessions out of suspects.

On other things there’s no consensus yet. Like it or not, we still make war, and so does the rest of the world. But at least until recently, there was a consensus that torture is wrong. Full stop. It was the practice of tyrants and barbarians. But like all moral progress, the consensus on torture is tenuous, and the only way to hold on to it — the only way to expand it — is by insisting absolutely and without exception that we not allow ourselves to backslide. Human nature being what it is — savage, vengeful, and tribal — the temptations are just too great. Small exceptions will inevitably grow into big ones, big ones into routine ones, and the progress of centuries is undone in an eyeblink.

Sir no one is arguing with you. Many of us agree with you. The debate isn’t at all about whether or not we allow torture. The question here is about defining the word “torture.” If I break into a chorus of All the Single Ladies, is that torture? Yes? How do you know? “Torture” has no meaning except the meaning assigned to it. It means a different thing when it comes to my singing, or what I’m doing to this over-discussed subject, and a different meaning entirely in a legal sense.

If we don’t define the word, it means nothing. I think when you see the phrase “torture memos” you imagine Judge Bybee sitting somewhere searching for loopholes in the laws that allow us to do whatever we want. That’s not at all what the debate is. You oppose “even moderate abuse?” Great. What does that mean? Does that mean you demand that detainees get fed three times a day? Does it mean that they get hot showers? Does it mean they get a maraschino cherry on top of their ice cream? Because when I don’t get a cherry I call it moderate abuse of a perfectly good sundae.

As journalists you guys have an even higher duty than lawyers do to protect language. Lawyers are in the business of creating a coherent lexicon. We define words, remember how words have been defined in the past, and then apply those definitions to new fact patterns.

Journalists have a very different job. Journalists aren’t trying to find how other people have used and recognized words in the past; journalists decide what a word means and how they will use it. It creates a very high responsibility, because it’s journalists who translate what everybody else does–yes, including lawyers–into language that people can follow. You’re not responsible for understanding the lexicon, but you are responsible for identifying facts and issues, for advancing the debate, and for keeping the public educated.

When you blur the issue so completely as to forget that the point of the recently-released documents have much more to do with the definitions of words than with loopholes or grants of permission, you actually work against the generally sophisticated public. Demoting the public from “sophisticated” is particularly dangerous in this sense, because if you prefer that words are not defined, every member of the public makes a judgment call in every instance.

If words are just syllables without meaning, then everybody gets to do what they want. If no one defines the word “torture” then every person in every situation simply decides what they’re in the mood to do. I promise you, we would much rather have a rule of law where words are defined and standards applied. The alternative is simply too slippery a slope.

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