September 20, 2015 by libroshombre
Let’s consider “visa” and “vis-a-vis.” According to the Inline Etymology Dictionary, the word “visa” comes from the Latin “charta visa,” which literally means “paper that has been seen.” Many thousands of people from Africa and the Middle East stranded in Hungary sure wish they had one. The flexible term “vis-à-vis” literally means “face-to-face” when used as an adverb. “Vis-à-vis” can be used as a noun meaning “a political or diplomatic counterpart,” and in “corporate speak” it means “regarding, with respect, to.” But it comes from “vis,” Old French for “face.”
It came to mind after reading about a Hungarian camerawoman working for 444.hu, a Hungarian news site “associated with Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party,” according to the NY Times. She was videotaped intentionallytripping up a foreign refugee who was carrying a child while fleeing from the police in a Hungarian “relocation camp.” Her act’s been widely condemned, but it beggared my assumption that people generally act more civilly when directly facing someone they don’t agree with.
“Swarms, Floods, and Marauders: The Toxic Metaphors of the Migration Debate,” a recent article from theGuardian.com by David Shariatmadari, looked at the metaphors being used in Britain to describe the refugee crisis facing Europe. Prime Minister Cameron “spoke of a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean,” his foreign secretary called them “marauders,” and “even the BBC used ‘flood’ and ‘stream’ as verbs to describe the movement of people north out of Italy.’
MacMillan Dictionary describes “metaphor as “a word or phrase that means one thing and is used for referring to another thing in order to emphasize their similar qualities.” George Lakoff’s “Metaphors We Live By” is a classic on the subject, and it’s in our public library’s collection. Lakoff “shows just how deeply embedded figures of speech are in our language … they represent fixed ideas that are ultimately just one way of looking at the world.” Shariatmadari cites a host of our culture’s ingrained metaphors, such as “Good Is Up, Bad Is Down” (as in “We hit a peak last year, but it’s been downhill ever since”), and “Ideas Are Food” (“Don’t spoonfeed your students”). The “swarm” and marauder” metaphors Cameron and his minister employed essentially said “Migrants Are Insects” and “Migrants Are An Invading Army.” “When set out so starkly,” Shariatmadari wrote, “it’s clear that these metaphors are way over the top. Not to mention dehumanizing, ridiculously simplistic, and pitched at around the intellectual level of a dark-ages Anglo Saxon.”
“Metaphors,” as Richard Dawkins pointed out, “are fine if they aid understanding, but sometimes they get in the way.” That’s worth keeping in mind, considering the vitriolic tenor of our country’s incessant political campaigning, especially on the topic of migrants. Another recent Guardian article noted that with 41 million native Spanish speakers, “the United States is now the world’s second largest Spanish-speaking country after Mexico.” Some jingoists fear this means that English will soon be surpassed by Spanish. Experts like Brooking Institute demographer William Frey pooh-pooh that notion since “the enthusiasm second- and third-generation Latinos have for English will act as a brake.” English is the world language of computers and commerce, so as Frey, states, “English will obviously be the dominant language,” especially in the U.S.
It’s worth recalling that in 1900 millions of Americans spoke German. By way of comparison, there were 17,194 English newspapers then and 613 German language ones, with Scandinavian papers coming in third with 115. During World War I anti-German hysteria mounted, and in many states teaching German was made illegal, German music couldn’t be performed even privately, and even speaking German was forbidden. Similar sentiments are echoed in today’s political rhetoric.
Curmudgeon, essayist, and wordsmith H.L. Mencken, whose parents were both first-generation German immigrants, was proud of his German extraction. He was educated in German-oriented schools in Baltimore, where as a man he frequented German bars. Nonetheless, Mencken became the greatest authority on the history of American English. It’s amazing what open and curious minds can achieve, and that’s just who our public libraries are meant for. No visas are required. As Lady Bird Johnson pointed out, “no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.”