Friday, February 25, 2011

East is East and West is West, but where are they?

All the ruckus in the Middle East has got me thinking. Not about peace, or even sanity, in the region—that's too much of a conundrum for my brain. No, I've been thinking of the interesting—to me!—question of why in the world we call it "the Middle East."

I know the "Far East" designates China and Japan and their neighborhood. Then there's the Middle East, an area with which we are all too familiar by now. So, if it's the middle, what's on the other side? True, one hears about the "Near East" now and then, and it would be logical to conclude that some lands to the west of the Middle East must constitute the Near East. Except there isn't any land to the west of the Middle East. There's just the Mediterranean (Middle Earth) Sea.

North Africa, you say? Where much of the current excitement is taking place? No. Listen to your favorite newscaster or read any news outlet. All that trouble? They say it's taking place in the Middle East.

It gets worse. In the Associated Press Stylebook, "Near East" is essentially a synonym for "Middle East." According to Wikipedia (yes, I know), the definitions and delineations of "Near East" and "Middle East" shifted around a lot until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 so confused geographers and the British military—which had adopted and tried to tame these terms—that everybody just gave up on "Near East" and everything from the Caucasus to the Atlantic shore of Africa became the Middle East.

Apparently diehards at the United Nations continue to use the phrase "Near East," by which they seem to mean the Levant only, but they are not any more influential in matters of language than they are in matters of diplomacy.

I won't even get into the hyper-sensitive objections that calling anyplace at all "East" is Eurocentric or Occident-centric or some such. I mean, we have to able to call these areas something or how can we even begin to have a "peace process" there?

Well, I hope that clears up any lingering questions about that region's name. Fittingly, it is just as much a confused mess as the Middle East itself. I know I feel better.

Friday, February 18, 2011

More verbing

As I have previously noted in this space, even in these dreary economic times, one part of the manufacturing sector is doing brisk business—the creation of new verbs. Spotting them makes reading newspapers and magazines ever so much more fun.

A local bookseller sends out a chatty newsletter in which he shared this: "I arrive at the bookstore two hours before opening time to catch up on newly acquisitioned books." Why not "acquired," I wonder? I suppose it is in imitation of "requisition," a noun that got in touch with its verbal side in Victorian military lingo.

My ear picked out our old friend the back-formation on an episode of "Intervention," a TV show about people with addictions. A therapist warned, "If she doesn't get treatment, she will continue to compulse." Ugh. That sounds really terrible.

A columnist explaining his views on life and death said "This is a one quarter, one life game. When you die, you die. That can be discomforting for many (even some of my fellow atheists)." I found "discomforting" discomfiting. The New Oxford American Dictionary allows "to discomfort," but, like the ubiquitous "to disrepect," it sounds strange to my ear.

Sometimes verbing creates a gem. Discussing the Wikileaks brouhaha, another columnist pointed out that the leaks were all from liberal democracies. Where was the gossip and insider information from the world's more numerous authoritarian regimes? "Such governments do not customarily go to court against their leakers; they gulag them…or liquidate them."

Turning "gulag" into a verb by rights should annoy me, but it does seem to be the mot juste in that context. Just this once. If it becomes a habit, we may have to gulag that writer.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The St. Valentine's Day Stick-Up

Valentine's Day looms, and each year I consider the occasion with decidedly mixed feelings. Childhood memories of lace hearts and decorated paper bags filled with dime-store cards are as sweet as candy hearts. Valentine's Day then was pure fun. Everybody got cards, from the most popular girl to the most misfit boy, and the sentiments—"Be Mine!" "You're the Greatest, Valentine!"—meant nothing. Nothing at all. Why this was such a treat I cannot explain. It was a childish delight.

Then there were the awkward years. Valentine's Day became the culmination of a fortnight or more of anxiety. Would Cupid smile and shoot and field-dress a date for the big day? Or, if there was a steady date on the scene, would he stay steady until after V-Day or evaporate before having to invest in flowers? And just what was the proper gesture from the female for the occasion? A card? Did Hallmark have a card expressing the sentiment, in rhyme, "I'm so glad you're around because I didn't want to be the only girl in the dorm who didn't get flowers, but really I don't know if I have anything to say to you"?

Of course, now Valentine's Day brings on other quandaries, such as "Do I postpone the after-Christmas diet until March so I can indulge in Valentine chocolates?" or "Do I buy the chocolates for Valentine's Day, or wait to get them on sale?"

Mostly my feelings are of sympathy for the poor men I see crowding the card and candy aisles on Feb. 13, or their more desperate brothers, grabbing up bouquets of whatever flowers are left on the day itself. Anything, apparently, is better than going home empty-handed.

Maybe true love means ignoring Valentine's Day, our annual celebration of hearts-and-flowers extortion. It's all over-the-top and, ultimately, silly. Except for the chocolate. Come to think of it, Valentine's Day is an important part of our national retail cycle, banishing the winter blues and giving business a lift after the tightened belts of January.

No, our noble candymakers must not suffer. Viva Valentine's Day, and bring out the chocolate.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Don't faze me, bro!

I admit to being fazed (disturbed or disconcerted, from Old English fesian) by made-up words that elbow their way into the language. Sometimes, if the neologisms are useful, I'll relent and adopt them, but not without a breaking-in period, usually accompanied by a modicum of grumbling.

Many of these new words have been tortured from existing ones in a process known as "back formation," for example, crafting a new verb from a real noun. When a protestor reached for Internet stardom and uttered the immortal words "Don't tase me, bro!" he bastardized a verb from a trademark name, Taser. ("Bastardize" is also a verb teased from a noun.)

Clearly, the public feels the need for a verb to describe the act of using a Taser. I don't think we have settled yet between "tase" and "taser" as a verb, but the instant popularity of the protestor's phrase may tip the balance toward the former.

"Liaise," a back-formation from "liaison," provides a verb for those who insist on one, but I cannot approve. Like many back-formations, it is clunky and, to make this one worse, it has a faintly pretentious air. How hard is it to say "John will act as liaison"? You'll sound more polished and you won't annoy me. Win-win.

Sometimes back-formed verbs are chosen instead of perfectly good, dictionary-approved ones. That's when I can be heard either yelling or mumbling, depending on my mood, "idiot!" or "are you kidding me?" to the television. Such as when a reporter told of a nutburger whose significant other was a large doll. TV reporter: "He believes some day they will create a doll that will conversate with him." Conversate? What is wrong with "converse"? Maybe the guy was too weirded out to think clearly. I can understand that.

I had the same reaction when I heard a TV talking head come out with the word "metamorphosize." "Metamorphose" is the right word and it's shorter by a syllable, two advantages that the commentator disregarded.

Of course, back-formations cannot, and should not, be eschewed completely. They can be helpful in communicating and provide flexibility to the language. I may even make my peace with "liaise." It may help eliminate another annoyance by teaching the public how to pronounce "liaison." If use of that back-formation stamps out "lay-uh-zahn," it will have become a force for good.