21 February 2007

Surging Towards Redundancy

[A belated contribution to the late and lamented Word.]

Our president--Mr. Stay-the-Course--is talking about a surge in Iraq. The media, the pundits, whatever, have picked up that word and run with it. Surge. What, if anything, do they mean by surge?

It’s a word I’ve had troubles with before. A century or so ago, when I was in grade school, I remember having to use “surge” in a sentence. I recalled the climax of Henry Kuttner's "What You Need"--when the anti-hero, wearing the smooth-soled shoes given him by the proprietor of a mysterious shop, can't keep his footing in a crowd on a slippery platform, and falls in front of a moving train. Remembering the scene I wrote, "There was a surge towards the edge of the platform." My teacher didn't accept that as a legitimate use of the word. I took my case to a higher authority--my mother--but she ruled that while my sentence was perfectly correct, I had not demonstrated in it that I actually understood the use of the word. Our definition had used the word swelling, or something like that, and from my sentence it could have been supposed that I thought that the platform was swollen at one edge.

Webster’s defines surge as a "violent rolling, sweeping, or swelling motion," among other things. My own feeling is that President Stay-the-Course and the media celebrities trailing in his wake have failed to demonstrate, at least as badly as I did, that they know the meaning of the word. What we are talking about is the gradual introduction of twenty thousand, or forty thousand, or whatever the real number is—not that we’ll ever be told—to Baghdad, to assist in trying to establish order there. Not a surge. More like a seep, or an ooze, a trickle, or maybe a creep. The thesaurus comes up with bleed as a possible synonym, grimly appropriate, but not in the sense I had in mind.

Language change is eternal, or at least so the linguists seem to think, but I feel that a kind of creeping obfuscation has grown up over our language that obscures and defiles the sharp distinctions that should exist. While the infer/imply debate seems to be a lost cause, to the impoverishment of the English language, surely we can still resist new misuses of words, particularly when important distinctions are lost. Parody and burlesque, for example. What Liam Lynch does is parody. What Weird Al does is burlesque. There is a difference, and calling burlesques parodies, and parodies also parodies, makes the language less precise. Likewise, calling a ripple a surge seems to me to blunt the instrument we communicate with, and perhaps we even think with, if Dr. Watson and his followers are right.

Which brings me to the three Rs—Reduction, Redundancy, and Redaction. All three of these words are under attack by creeping obfuscation. Redaction has been confounded with Censorship, Redundancy with Joblessness, and Reduction with Expansion.

Okay, reduction. How on earth could anybody confuse reduction and expansion? Are not increase and reduce opposites? Well, let’s take a look at the position of the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate on this word. The APPCDC is a little-known outfit. The United States belongs to it, as well as Australia, South Korea, India, Japan, and China. According to one writer it is one of George Bush’s unsung triumphs. The APPCDC is promising to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by half by the end of the century. And this without slowing the economy down or requiring any painful sacrifices by the people of the world. Sound impossible? Well, actually, it is, at least by the methods pursued by the APPCDC. The thing is, the APPCDC has its own private definition of reduce. We usually think of reduction as meaning decreasing the amount of something. The APPCDC has its own notion. For it, reduce means increase at a lower rate of speed. A scene from The Motor Chums in Strange Waters may perhaps illustrate the point:

“Slow down,” shrieked Ben Hangdog wildly, as the car increased its pace down the narrow country lane. “We’re going to crash!”

“Oh that’s impossible,” chuckled short Ned Eliot, “as the piano tuner said of the twelve-inch pianist. Not with Tom Wilshire driving.”

“In any case,” Harry Fletcher observed precisely, “Tom is in fact slowing down.”

“How can that be?” inquired Ben Hangdog wildly. “The speedometer just rounded sixty.”

“As you just observed,” replied Harry, “It took Tom no less than thirty-eight seconds to go from forty miles per hour to sixty.”

“So what?” screeched Ben. “We’re almost up to sixty-five! The gear box will never stand it!”

“But it took him almost twelve seconds. At the present rate we will only be at seventy-five when thirty-eight seconds have elapsed. The car is thus slowing down.”

“You’re crazy,” muttered Ben nervously, reaching for the door handle.

“No, it’s the simplest of simple math,” said Tom Wilshire confidently.

Made Redundant is now a synonym for being without a job, Redundancy refers to joblessness, and the word is a synonym for superfluous, even useless. This blunts the meaning. A certain amount of redundancy is necessary in a system, to make it robust. Redundancy refers to multiplication, not to necessity. We have perfectly good words for the concept of lacking necessity—superfluous, for one, and unnecessary, for another. Gratuitous. Uncalled for. Unneeded. Unwanted. The language itself uses redundancy as a device to counter noise, with such points of grammar as agreement of subject and verb, or of adjective and noun. The fact that the same information is delivered in more than one way is an example of redundancy—but the redundancy is nonetheless necessary grammatically. Huge systems (like the electrical grid that supplies the power we use to write and read this very entry) are designed with a certain amount of necessary redundancy in order to ensure that the failure of a part doesn’t mean the failure of the whole.

Now the other day when I was watching TV, or at least I had it on in the background, I heard a bit of dialog. The prosecution offered the defense a copy of an avadavat. “The name of the witness has been redacted,” protests the defense attorney. Redacted! I believe the term she was looking for was removed, or perhaps obliterated. The technical term is censored. Redacting a document does not mean censoring it—though censorship may well be one object of a redaction. Redacting a document is editing it—creating a new edition, perhaps to add material, perhaps to abridge it, perhaps to combine it with another account of the same events. Redaction criticism examines such an edited document, focusing on the differences between it and its source. This new and perverse use of the word to mean censor seems to me a kind of political correctness—censor is a bad word, so we just say redact. Never mind the damage done by this abuse of language.

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