You say terrorist. She says insurgent. You say freedom. He says global hegemony. And the mice in "Three Blind Mice" aren't really rodents, but Protestants burned at the stake. It's never been easy to declare for certain what words mean, but in these deconstructionist days it could get you stabbed, or at least fired. Once the province of wrinkly scholars probing Sanskrit origins, semantics is everyone's game now, a pursuit rendered personal and political. Secret meanings and misconstruances lurk everywhere. In The Da Vinci Code, "the Mona Lisa" is a cagey anagram for "Oh, lame saint."
Steven Poole's Unspeak (Grove, $23) subtitled "How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality" aims to unpack loaded nouns that reporters and politicians wield to trick us all. Abuse. Extremism. Terror all euphemisms for seducing naive knuckle-draggers, Poole argues. "The 'terrorist' label," for instance, "becomes a means of blanking out nuance. ... If his victims are 'innocent,' the terrorist is 'evil.'" Thus the BBC and Poole's employer The Guardian restrict reporters from using it. Even the bloodlessly ubiquitous "community," Poole argues, manipulates faux nostalgia to "codify a kind of idealism, this sense of common interest or sympathy." Nor does "tragedy" mean tragedy, or "enemy" enemy. They're "terministic screens." Don't get him started on "nature," "operations," or "human resources." No cocktail napkin on earth could look neutral to this guy.
Bill Clinton once galvanized crowds by proclaiming: "Opportunity. Responsibility. Community." Last year, the Democratic Party repackaged it into a new slogan: "Prosperity. Opportunity. Community," deep-sixing responsibility, which amuses Poole, though his sympathies (not that he belongs to a community or anything) lie left rather than right, which he demonstrates by lacerating the Bush administration on nearly every page. As he has every right to do. But in a book that purports to dismantle bias, his bias bites him in the butt. Can this man be trusted not to ply his own Unspeech?
Poole accuses Bush of adopting "the weasel use" of a certain word. A weasel is a soft sneaky mammal. In the nursery rhyme "Pop Goes the Weasel," it isn't a mammal but a coat (backtranslated from Cockney rhyming slang: "weasel-and-stoat"). Or it's a silk-spinning machine. And "pop" means "pawn." Or it replicates the sound of the machine shutting off. Chris Roberts probes the real meanings of childhood verses in Heavy Words, Lightly Thrown (Gotham, $20), identifying the goose in "Goosie, Goosie, Gander" as a prostitute and Humpty-Dumpty as a 17th-century cannon.
A morbid librarian, Roberts unearths historical shockers. Under Elizabethan law, vagabonds were whipped, then had their ears branded with hot irons. Living children were customarily sealed up in the masonry of new bridges. Land grabs, plagues, persecutions, purges: Archaic Unspeak turned these horrors into news bites, work-safe among a mainly illiterate populace. Metaphors morphed over time: "Ladybird, Ladybird" might once have evoked witches escaping inquisitors, then centuries later sympathized with Scots refugees: real life, reflected cockeyed in jumprope chants. Roberts applies excess padding and, at the end, apologizes for not being an expert, for basing much of his research on "hearsay, the Internet, and straightforward gossip." Oh, hell.
Yes, folklore is fluid, which allows for some unorthodox means of inquiry. But at what point does the anecdotal intersect with the totally random? Or stuff ya just made up?
But that's what deconstructionism and its handmaidens, truthiness and critical theory, are all about: the reedy-voiced insistence that nothing is objective, that what things mean depends on how you feel about them, what you "bring" to them; let a hundred interpretations bloom, each one valid. Way to deny the existence of reality! Way to spawn a nation of narcissists! You have entered the postmeaning age, the postdefinition age, the disinformation age. Nihilism is the new black. Nuances expand and flow, exponentially. Agendas jab like secret syringes. Subverting dominant paradigms till they drop, readers turn passive or paranoid. Seeking the truth seems silly and imperialistic. Human brains, animal as they are, crave certainty. Ballast. Grist. Given scuttlebutt research instead, pick-and-mix propagandas and biased books about bias, heads spin. It's a plot. No, really, it is. And Samuel Johnson was lucky to die before having to see it.
Johnson struggled with semantics, too, as Henry Hitchings reveals in Defining the World (Farrar Straus Giroux, $24), his warm biography of the compulsive, disheveled, orange-rind-collecting poet whose 42,773-word English-language dictionary published in 1755 after nine years of labor, sloth, and anguish was not the first of its kind but the most monumental.
Johnson's century was marked by unprecedented quests for knowledge, for the narcotic of what was then called discovery and later called invasion. In an Age of Enlightenment, an Age of Reason, Johnson's masterpiece offered both. Hitchings calls it "a machine de guerre."
Johnson slept late. In a London that favored public executions and gin, he interviewed experts, plumbed his memories, and in a garret outfitted as an assembly line he cut and pasted strips from other volumes onto his own handwritten manuscript. Citing its sixteen definitions for "in," its twenty for "up," Hitchings asks us to "visualize the author hunched at his desk; his shadow pinned against the wall; this is the deep midnight of lexicography." The "fat white arms of melancholy" clenched Johnson as he worried about his wife, a hypochondriac more than twenty years his senior who wouldn't have sex with him. He sought clarity in definitions, but sometimes his own emotions, opinions, Christian morals, and "the bright colors of subjectivity burst in." He included "barbecue," "snapdragon," and "lingo" but omitted "athlete," "ultimatum," and "buggery." Deigning to define "ambassadress," he called it a "ludicrous" word. He flaunted his patriotic loathing of Frenchisms by omitting "unique" and "cutlet."
A real-life stint as a teenaged laborer during China's Cultural Revolution inspired Han Shaogong's novel, A Dictionary of Maqiao (Dial, $12), new in paperback. Translated lustrously by Julia Lovell, glimpses of angsty rural life appear in glossary form, scalp-tingling sarcasm packed into its "definitions." And admit it you've always thought the Bayeux Tapestry, that 2,755-foot textile with its gangly warriors and channel-spanning fleet, glorifies the Norman Conquest of Britain, QED. But in 1066 (Walker, $15), Andrew Bridgeford argues that the world's most famous embroidery is actually a secret subversive anti-Norman plaint, "a dangerously many-layered masterpiece" into whose 626 "woolen actors" and Latin captions a brilliant English artist stitched hidden messages. "Nowadays," Bridgeford muses, "it is more fashionable to have been a conquered people ... to bask in the innocent glories of defeat" than in the 11th century, when victims were expected to just shut up and plough. "At a time when it was not possible to record the English view in writing," the tapestry's designer produced "a Trojan horse within which the English viewpoint was ingeniously preserved." That it stayed secret for a millennium proves, if Bridgeford's claim is correct, that both code and encoder were brilliant. Or that folks are gullible. Or that authors such as Bridgeford, scouting hidden agendas, might bear hidden agendas. Or that Jesus was married. Or not. It depends on what your definition of "was" is.
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