February 3, 2015 by libroshombre
Judging by our national debate over the subject, “torture” is one of those terms whose meaning seems to depend on who’s using or hearing it. Much of the rationale for condoning torture for interrogation seems couched in “syntactic ambiguity,” which is a long way of saying “amphibology,” which is defined by Webster’s as “a sentence or phrase (as ‘nothing is good enough for you’) that can be interpreted in more than one way.” An extreme example can be found in “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable,” that bottomless source of intellectual whimsy, which cites a poem about proper usage of the word “That”
“For be it known that we may safely write/ Or say that ‘that THAT’ that that man wrote was right;/ Nay e’en that that THAT, that ‘that THAT’ has followed,/ Through six repeats, the grammar’s rule has hallowed;/ And that that THAT that THAT ‘that THAT’ began /Repeated seven times is right, deny’t who can.” Another example designed to illustrate the importance of punctuation is “That that is is that that is not is not is that it it is.” Or “That that is, is. That that is not, is not. Is that it? It is.” For some language-lovers, this stuff is ecstasy, but for many of us, it’s torturous.
When Webster was cited above, everyone knew who was meant: Daniel Webster, the father of American lexicography and creator of the first great American dictionary. He published a trial one in 1806, but it took him another 22 years to complete the first edition of his American Dictionary of the English Language. It contained over 70,000 definitions, 30,000 more than Samuel “Dictionary” Johnson’s famous dictionary the century before. To accomplish this feat Webster learned 26 languages, including Old English, Greek, and Sanskrit. Sadly, only 2,500 copies of Webster’s 1828 dictionary sold, and he mortgaged his home to put out the second edition in 1840, and he died three years later.
Webster urged reforming the stranger spellings from the mother country. He succeeded with some, like “ax,” “color,” and “center,” but his efforts to promote “wimmin,” “dawter,” and “tung” fizzled. Others are worth reconsidering. “After-wise,” meaning “wise afterwards or too late,” “packthread,” meaning “strong string to tie parcels,” and “tardigradous,” meaning “slow-paced,” all seem imminently useful. He included many great S-words, such as to “sheep-bite,” (“practice petty thefts”), “scranch” (“grind with the teeth”), and “squabbish” (“thick, fat, heavy”). And don’t forget “babblement,” meaning “senseless prattle or unmeaning words.”
University of Illinois professor Dennis Baron writes an interesting language-related blog titled “the Web of Language.” In a recent entry Baron suggests that “torture” should be considered by some of the word-of-the-year (WOTY) compilers. He noted that “December brought ‘enhanced interrogation techniques, or EITs, back into our vocabulary. This euphemism for torture resurfaced with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA detention and questioning of terror suspects … it’s the epitome of what went wrong, not just with counterterrorism, but with everything.”
Baron noted how Samuel Johnson chose “internets” (“any virtual system of nodes reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices at the intersection”) as the word of the year for 1755, when his Dictionary of the English Language was published. “Not to be outdone,” Baron wrote, “Webster nominated ‘torture’ for the best word of 1928, defining it in … terms that could have come right out of a Bush White House memorandum: ‘Severe pain inflicted judicially, either as a punishment for a crime, or for the purpose of extorting a confession from an accused person.”
For the record, in 2014Merriam-Webster’s WOTY was “culture.” In Germany it was “Lichtgrenze,” which means “border of light, a display commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall.” Reflecting the times, in Norway the WOTY was “Fremmedkriger,” or “foreign fighter,” and the “Dutch picked ‘Dagobertducktaks,’ a Scrooge McDuck tax on the rich.”
As a counterbalance to tortuous amphibology everywhere, my WOTY is “concinnity,” “harmonious arrangement of various parts,” which also describes a well-run library.” You can quickly tell upon entering a library if it’s arranged more for the librarian’s ease and happiness than those using it. When that happens, it’s pure torture.