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Mind the Gap (1)

Published on 04 March 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

Language is riddled with gaps. Some are yawning gulfs, such as the abyss between what you meant to say and what you actually said when it came out all wrong, or between what you thought you’d said and what the other party understood. Others are so small that you don’t even realise they’re there, like the tectonic fissures which appear in certain words only once you add a preposition: “power to” vs “power over”; “fear of” vs “fear for”, to “laugh at” or “laugh with”.

There are also gaps between words which we stride over unheadingly: “headache pill” vs “longevity pill”; “crocodile shoes” vs “baby shoes”; “apple cake” vs “vegan cake”. And there are gaps between sentences which we can be coaxed into bridging along lines suggested by the speaker: “Saddam Hussein is a threat to our nation. September the 11th changed the strategic thinking, at least, as far as I was concerned, for how to protect our country.”[1]

Coaxed often enough, we may come to believe that our own inferential leap is justified and reflects the truth, or the truth of what we’ve been told, at least. The speaker may plausibly deny ever having said that, in this case, Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11.

Then there are gaps where words should exist, but don’t: why must we dis being (s)”hevelled”, “traught” or “tracted”? And there are the countless gaps in every area of human experience for which no word exists – yet.[2] Not to mention the riddles of coded terms, politenesses, irony, ambiguity, indirect speech acts…

Perhaps my favourite gap is the one which emerges, like an air-bubble, with the use of contrastive stress: “now this is worth considering” suddenly alerts us to the shortfall of an implied “that”. And rarely does a language manage to communicate, by means of a single syllable, the sweepingly superior dismissal of the assembled company’s lamentable lack of appreciation and resourcefulness, as English does in “well, I’m enjoying myself”. None of it said, but all quite clearly implied by the contrastive stress which, by placing focus on what’s worthy, relegates the unstressed alternative to the realm of the hopelessly unworthy.

Compound words
In this posting I’d like to focus on the gaps between words and ask: why mind what’s harmless? It’s only in children’s games that you’re dead if you step on the cracks. And you’d have to be pretty dead not to realise that whereas apple cakes are made of bits of apple, vegan cakes are not…, and whereas crocodile shoes are made of crocodile skin, baby shoes are not…, and whereas headache pills get rid of  headaches, longevity pills….

Let’s start with portmanteaus, words which consist of the beginning of one word and (usually) the end of another, having eaten up the intervening syllables: bankster; workaholic; Chinglish; Amerind; fantabulous; chortle – the latter so familiar from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky that many of us have forgotten the source words are “chuckle” and “snort”. [3] There are hundreds more, many of them playfully apt in combining the best of both terms.

A portmanteau, once coined, may acquire a life of its own. Since Watergate, there have been countless new scandals edified by the –gate suffix, most recently “Plebgate” (referring to the fallout from UK Government’s chief whip Andrew Mitchell’s altercation in September 2012 with a police officer in which Mitchell called the bobby a ‘pleb’).

The term “omnishambles” was coined in 2009 by the BBC political satire The Thick of It and used by Ed Milliband to refer to the Budget in April 2012, after which it became a popular term of disparagement among the chattering classes. It was adapted to “Romeyshambles” in July 2012 to refer to Mitt Romney’s many political gaffes, and then emerged in September as “Scomnishambles”, referring to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s run of difficulties over defecting MSPs and an independent Scotland’s uncertain legal status in the EU. Scomnishambles also echoes, ironically, Salmond’s own proud coinage of Scottish Olympians as “Scolympians”. By November 2013, omnishambles had been nominated word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary.[4]

No harm in inspired word-play, and no need for a government health warning therefore, unless we, the ludic language-lovers, see fit to warn the government of the following: an apt label can seriously damage your image. If mud sticks, memorable mud does so all the more, and portmanteaus are compounds with cred-appeal.

Nothing seems more fitting, more conducive to an “Oh my God, that’s so true!” response than a witty portmanteau. This is in part because of the match-made-in-heaven quality inherent in wit itself, which Mark Twain defined as “the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation.” The smooth dovetailing of sounds and syllables in portmanteaus adds to their sense of rightness – witness “Eurogeddon”.

The aptness of portmanteaus is also due to the power of framing: once you’ve framed an issue in a short, sharp and shocking way, it’s very difficult to reframe it. Try to deny that the budget is an omnishambles, and you reinforce not only the word itself, but the story and attendant emotions. Think of Wikileaks and Vatileaks: The Pope’s tardy lament that exaggerated and gratuitous rumours had offered a false image of the Holy See, did little to diminish the impact of that one word “Vatilieaks” and its implicit claim that the documents leaked by the Pope’s butler were in any way analogous in type, scale, significance, damage or criminality to those leaked by Bradley Manning and disseminated by Julian Assange.

It would seem, then, that the missing syllables of portmanteaus pack a double punch: they bring the force of two words to bear on a situation along with a sense of perfect fit, in sound and meaning. But a good fit in sound does not entail a good fit in meaning: the analogy may be false and should at least be debated. A portmanteau, in which wit overrides the analytic, is a potentially image-wrecking combiword.

Euphemisms & dysphemisms
Let’s turn next to the gap between projection and perception. Whereas euphemisms provide a positive spin on the things they denote, and dysphemisms a negative one, both create a gap between the story-in-the-word and the story-on-the-ground. For example, there is a tall dividing edifice in Israel referred to alternately as the “security fence” and “apartheid wall”. Under certain circumstances, the manslaughter of a Muslim woman may be described either as an “honour killing” or a “misogynist murder.” Aid donations have been labelled both “constructive charity” and “destructive pity”, and voluntary work in the developing world as either “international understanding” or “white guilt.”

It is in the military domain that positive and negative spin abounds: was the war in Iraq a “liberation” or “occupation”; is the deployment of troops abroad a  “justified armed intervention” or “immoral military aggression”; is a surprise manoeuver a “pre-emptive strike” or a “sneak attack”; is a U-turn of troops a “retrograde movement” or a “retreat”; is death at the hands of one’s own side “friendly fire” and a “misadventure” or an “avoidable death”, and an irreversible “mistake”.[5]

The advantage of such paired terms is that we can balance them out against each other. The danger arises when we only have, or know of, a single term and assume it is the neutral referent. I had not seen the loaded nature of a “working mother” till somebody took the trouble to spell it out for me: only paid work, done away from the home, counts. Housework and child-work is not work, nor, until recently, was working from home, or not the kind of gainful employment that would promote you to the respectable status of working mother. Further evidence for the loadedness of this compound comes from the ironical expression “I’m a non-working mother.”

Sometimes the introduction of a counter-term can startle you into awareness – I certainly sat up and took notice when I heard the old, well-loved “scary movie” recast as “terror porn.” If you want to mind the gap between product and sales-pitch, then get into the habit of reframing standard terms with flip-variants.

Oxymora and Doublespeak
And now for one of my favourite word gaps, exemplified by “soft power,” “enlightened self-interest” and other oxymora such as “mandatory option,” “living dead,” “grimly gay.” Oxymoron, from the Greek meaning sharp and dull, is a word which straddles the gap between opposites by creating one word out of two antonyms.[6]

Although oxymora, especially of the poetic variety, can startle us into a heightened awareness, the politically motivated kind often inserts an intentionally misleading gap between one’s real and one’s declared intentions. George Orwell decried this gap when he claimed that political language makes “lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”[7] William Lutz defines doublespeak as “language that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable,” and goes on to claim that it is a form of language which limits thought rather than extending it. “It avoids or shifts responsibility … is at variance with its real or purported meaning.” [8]

“Power,” in a touchy-feely world where the force of attraction is more highly valued than that of coercion, is a potentially negative concept. Certainly, “hard power” is popularly perceived in much of the West as physically strong but morally suspect. “Soft,” in contrast, and by analogy with compounds such as “soft-drinks,” “soft-porn,” “soft-landing,” “soft-hearted,” denotes something physically weak but morally strong. Coin the oxymoron “soft power” and you get the best of both: a morally strong yet physically deferential power. It is indeed a form of power, but not the overbearing and aggressive force you might normally associate with the word “power.”

Similarly, “enlightened self-interest” isn’t the selfish, self-serving type of action you might associate with the term “self-interest”, but a far-sighted, encompassing stance which champions the interests of all those who deserve inclusion. So obvious is the blessing bestowed by enlightened self-interest that it might seem churlish to ask who decides – and on what criteria – the actions to be undertaken in its name.[9]

“Managed democracy,” “guided democracy” and “totalitarian democracy” are all terms which claim to refer to types of democracies. Yet a first-glance acquaintance with the practices of these States alerts you to the fact that apart from the right to vote, their citizens have no participation in, or influence upon, the decision-making process of the government.

The use of a modifier to stretch the category in question can be found everywhere: “gunboat” and “chequebook diplomacy” are maybe not prototypical forms of diplomacy, but they reflect certain aspects of diplomatic practice. And if that’s not your understanding of diplomacy, then open your eyes to realpolitik.

By the same token, “supra-State sovereignty” and “quasi-sovereignty” may not conform with the standard definition of “sovereignty”, but they denote valid variations on the theme. “Precision bombing” is a form of bombing, but like “surgical strikes”, of such a supposedly high degrees of precision that it carries none of the derogatory connotations of either, just as some would have us believe that “friendly fire” is OK because it means no harm.

Virus Alert
In an earlier posting on Obama’s 2013 inaugural, I argued that the NOT X BUT Y construction makes the speaker sound eminently reasonable while actually obscuring a fallacy of false choice. It seems to me that compounds in which the modifier stretches, and in some cases completely subverts, the definition of the head noun are a word-level variant of the NOT X BUT Y argument. Even more potently, they also involve contrastive stress.

Such compounds can be given the following spell-out: “Soft power is a form of power right enough, but not the bad type you have in mind, it’s soft power, so don’t worry.” Similarly, “it’s not self-interest but enlightened self-interest”, “not bombing but precision bombing” etc…  The 2008 winner of the Doublespeak Award was “aspirational goal” – which rather relegates other goals to the non-aspirational heap of unworthies.[10]

Other times the spell-out goes: “Gunboat and chequebook diplomacy are a form of diplomacy, maybe not the prototype we associate with diplomacy, but one which reflects the reality on the ground, so let’s get real.” The formula is: “it’s not your typical X, but it’s X nonetheless”, where X stands for sovereignty, democracy or any other relevant category.

This discrepancy between the category in question and the anomalous category member which has secured admission reminds me of viruses which simulates the profile of a bit of protein in order to gain access into a cell. Once inside, the virus can claim that destruction is for the sake of survival, much as the US officer claimed in 1968 regarding the war in Vietnam that sometimes “it becomes necessary to destroy the town in order to save it,”[11] and as Bush argued that the Iraq war is all about peace.[12] But whereas these contradictions are readily recognisable at sentence level, doublespeak at word level is often more insidious.

Why mind the gap, then, especially in the case of the harmless little gaps to be found between compound words? Because we are such consummate gap-fillers that we often don’t realise there’s a gap there, let alone the flavour of our filling. This makes us not only vulnerable to manipulation, but complicit in our own manipulation – never a good thing in political discourse. Furthermore, ignoring the gap may desensitise us to the delights of word play and to the potential of gaps to manipulate others – which is surely even worse! 

[1] George W Bush, 6 March 2003, National Press Conference.

[2] Douglas Adams and John Lloyd are busy filling those shortfalls with re-appropriated place-names in The Meaning of Liff. For an entertaining Radio broadcast celebrating the 30th anniversary of the book, and the publication this summer of a sequel, see: The Meaning of Liff at 30.

[3] For an analysis of the portmanteau words, nonce words and other terms in Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, see Possible Interpretation of Terms in Wiki’s entry.

[4] Omnishambles named word of the year by Oxford English Dictionary. BBC 13 November 2012. Romneyshambles and Vatileaks: variations on a theme. Liz Walter in the Cambridge Dictionaries Online Blog: About Words, 16 January 2013.

[5] Arms Talk. Hugh Rawson in the Cambridge Dictionaries Online, Blog: About Words, 25 February 2013.

[6] Richard Lederer, “Oxymoronology” Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics, 1990, reprinted on fun-with-words.com

[7] George Orwell “Politics and the English Language”, 1947.

[8] William Lutz, Doublespeak. Public Relations Quarterly, 1988-9. Pp 25-30.

[9] See President Obama’s promotion of enlightened self-interest in his justification for greater armed intervention. A Just and Lasting Peace, Nobel Lecture, 10 December 2009.

[10] The Doublespeak Award is an “ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.” It has been issued by the National Council of Teachers of English since 1974.

[11] Attributed by the Vietnam journalist Peter Arnett to an un-named Major in reference to the destruction of Ben Tre, this quote is contested.

[12] “I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.” 18 June 2002; “The reason we start a war is to fight a war, win a war, thereby causing no more war.” Presidential debate, Boston, MA, Oct. 3, 2000.


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