Janus Words – Two-faced English

By Hugh Rawson

HughAs if reading and writing English is not difficult enough, the language includes a number of words with opposite meanings within themselves. These are often called Janus words, after Janus, the Roman god of doors and beginnings. (January, the first month of the year, is named for him.) Janus usually was represented in art as having two bearded faces that faced in opposite directions, as do doors — and as do Janus words.

Among the most commonly encountered Janus words are cleave, hew, and sanction. For example, one can be said to cleave a block of wood, meaning to split it, or to cleave to one’s principles, meaning to cling to them. Hew is almost synonymous in both senses. When a lumberjack hews a tree, he is cutting it down, but a politician who hews to a party platform, or a party line, is adhering closely to it. (Party line, by the way, usually is associated with the Communist Party, but is a lot older:  Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri used it in a political context in a memoir published in 1854.) Sanction, meanwhile, may refer either to formal approval or permission, as in “Some states now sanction gay marriage,” or to an official ban, penalty, or deterrent, as in “The Treasury Department has imposed sanctions on Japan’s biggest organized-crime syndicate, known as the yakuza” (New York Times, Feb. 24, 2012). Continue reading “Janus Words – Two-faced English”

Yet More Yiddish

By Hugh Rawson

HughYiddish has enriched the English language with many lively, often earthy contributions to everyday speech.  A previous post listed a number of examples of what is sometimes called Yinglish. Here are some more:

kibitz. To look on at a card game or other activity in an officious way; by extension, to stick one’s nose into another person’s business. The person who does this is a kibitzer. The word stems from the German name of a bird, kiebitz, the lapwing or pewit, a member of the plover family. The lapwing has long symbolized forwardness because it is so active so soon after hatching. This is the bird that is often portrayed in cartoons as running around with its head still in its shell. Continue reading “Yet More Yiddish”

Speaking of Yiddish

By Hugh Rawson

Tough and loud, brash and irreverent, full of humor and chutzpah – he was our city’s quintessential mayor. — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking at the funeral of former Mayor Edward I. Koch, Feb. 4, 2013

Chutzpah, pronounced HUTS-pah or KHOOTS-pah to rhyme with FOOTS-pah — is a wonderfully vibrant word and one of the leading contributions of Yiddish to English. Its explosive sound – you can practically hear the fireworks going off — gives added impact to its meaning: brazen impudence, gall, sheer nerve. The classic example of chutzpah (aside from Mayor Koch) is that of the man who murdered his parents, then asked the court for mercy because he was an orphan.

Chutzpah and its cousins are relatively recent additions to the vocabulary of English-speakers. Continue reading “Speaking of Yiddish”

Arms Talk

By Hugh Rawson

A national debate over gun control has begun in the United States, and you can tell where people stand on the issue without really listening to their arguments. Just pay attention to the key words they use. Those who favor restrictions on guns, particularly semi-automatic rifles that can fire many bullets without reloading, stress their offensive capabilities. They typically refer to these guns as assault rifles, military-style weapons, and combat weapons.  Meanwhile, the companies that make these same rifles, and the people who oppose restricting them, speak more abstractly of tactical weapons, modern sporting rifles, and personal defense weapons (P.D.W. for short). More powerful, longer-range rifles are described, depending on one’s point of view, as sniper rifles or precision rifles, and firearms of all sorts may be referred to most generally, and most blandly, as tools. The choice of words sets the terms of the debate and forecasts the speaker’s conclusion. Continue reading “Arms Talk”

Words of Watergate: Part 2

gateBy Hugh Rawson

President Richard M. Nixon and his men – and all his aides were men back in the benighted 1970s – leaned heavily on harmless-sounding, euphemistic language in order to obscure, if not conceal completely, the criminal activities that formed the Watergate scandal. Examples include caper, house cleaning, plumber, and others noted in last month’s post.

Some of Mr. Nixon’s aides could turn vivid phrases, however. The most talented of these was John D. Ehrlichman, the president’s chief domestic affairs adviser, who blossomed as a novelist after being sentenced to jail for his role in Watergate. It was Ehrlichman who suggested to John W. Dean III, the president’s counsel, that he deep-six the phone-tapping equipment that had been found in the office safe of E. Howard Hunt, Jr., a White House plumber (officially a “consultant”) implicated in the Watergate break-in. Deep-six is sailor’s slang for tossing something overboard into water at least six fathoms (thirty-six feet) deep. Dean wasn’t familiar with the expression, however. As he testified to the Senate committee that investigated Watergate:

“I asked him what he meant by ‘deep six.’ He leaned back in his chair and said: ‘You drive across the [Potomac] river at night, don’t you? Well, when you cross over the river on your way home, just toss the briefcase into the river.’” Continue reading “Words of Watergate: Part 2”

Words of Watergate

top secretBy Hugh Rawson

The fortieth anniversary of the Watergate scandal is well worth observing not only for its political results – an American president, Richard M. Nixon, was forced to resign and a number of his top aides went to jail – but for the way it enriched our political vocabulary. The scandal popularized such words and phrases as cover up, deep six, deep throat, dirty tricks, follow the money, inoperative, smoking gun, and stonewall. And it also offers lessons about the dangers of using deceptive language that remain relevant today.

The words of Watergate tended to be highly euphemistic. The president and his men tried at every step along the way to sugar coat criminal actions through the artful use of language. Thus, the incident that brought the scandal to life, the break-in on June 17, 1972, at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate  complex in Washington, D.C., was initially downplayed by Ron Ziegler, the president’s press secretary, as “a third-rate burglary attempt.” (Actually, this was the second third-rate burglary at the DNC office. The purpose of the June 17 break-in was to fix a telephone bug that had been installed there at the end of May.) Continue reading “Words of Watergate”

Fowl Talk for Thanksgiving

By Hugh Rawson

“Do you want white meat or dark meat?”

“Dark, please.”

“Would you like a drumstick?”

The key words in this snatch of dinner-table conversation – white meat, dark meat, and drumstick – are used so often when carving up a turkey at Thanksgiving that people tend to forget they are euphemisms: agreeable, round-about words employed in place of ones that are regarded as coarse or offensive. In this case, the “offensive” words are breast, thigh, and leg, words that people in polite society once avoided using, especially when women were present.

The avoidance of plain terms for bodily parts commonly is associated with the prudery of our Victorian ancestors though many of the evasions predate Her ascension to the throne in 1837.  To cite just a few examples from this euphemistically fertile period:  people started saying darn instead of damn, to employ dashes (d – – –) when writing the harsher word, to perspire instead of sweat, to wear unmentionables  instead of  trousers and breeches, to have stomachaches instead of bellyaches, to use nude rather than naked when referring to human figures in painting and sculpture, and to be laid to rest, not buried, in a cemetery (from the Greek word for “dormitory” or “sleeping place”) rather than in a graveyard. Continue reading “Fowl Talk for Thanksgiving”

The Embattled American Dream

By Hugh Rawson

The candidates in the 2012 American presidential election disagree on many issues, but when you come right down to it, much of the contest revolves around different interpretations of the American dream and what, if anything, the government should do to help people make that dream come true.

Continue reading “The Embattled American Dream”

Red State Blue State

By Hugh Rawson

Now that the national political conventions are over, and the candidates of the two major parties officially selected, the interminable campaign for the American presidency is heading into the home stretch, where all eyes are focused on election maps composed of red states, meaning basically Republican states, and blue states, referring to Democratic ones.

The firm association of red with Republican and blue with Democratic is comparatively new in American politics, dating only to the election of 2000. Previously, different publications and TV stations used different color schemes on election maps. Yellow and green were sometimes employed, while red and blue often had opposite meanings from today. For example, in 1980, TV newsman David Brinkley described the many blue-colored states on a map that portrayed Republican Ronald Reagan’s overwhelming victory as “beginning to look like a suburban swimming pool.”  And in 1992, anticipating Democrat Bill Clinton’s triumph over Republican George H. W. Bush, a Boston Globe columnist wrote: “But when the anchormen turn to their electronic tote boards and the red states for Clinton start swamping the blue states for Bush, this will be a strange night for me.” Continue reading “Red State Blue State”

Gosh Darn It to Heck!

By Hugh Rawson

Gosh, darn it, and heck are euphemisms – mild, round-about words used in place of stronger, plainer ones. They translate as the much more forceful “God damn it to hell!” The euphemistic phrase honors old taboos while enabling users to let off emotional steam without much risk of upsetting people with delicate sensibilities.

It is always difficult to trace the origins of casual phrases of this sort, but gosh and many of its close cousins appear to have crept into the English language in the second half of the eighteenth century. This was a time when society in England and its newly united colonies in North America was becoming more refined, anticipating many of the features that are commonly associated with the Victorian Age. (She ascended to the throne in 1837.) People in the late 1700s on both sides of the Atlantic started to act more politely than in the past and to choose their words more carefully, especially when women were present. Continue reading “Gosh Darn It to Heck!”