On Tuesday, Sarah Palin, wearing a hypnotically sparkly garment that sartorial conservatives might have impugned as inappropriate for a daytime event, delivered a 20-minute endorsement of real estate developer and former Democrat Donald J. Trump, who, as you may have heard, is running for president as a Republican in order to Make America Great Again. As the New York Timesput it, in an excess of understatement, “Ms. Palin has always been a singular force on the campaign trail. But in her her years away from politics, the former Alaska governor and Senator John McCain’s Republican vice-presidential pick in 2008 seems to have spawned a whole new series of idiosyncratic expressions and unusual locutions.”
I’ll say. Here are some of the responses Ms. Palin’s “expressions and locutions” have inspired.
Let us briefly imagine the brainstorming session at Polish Eats, of Garfield Heights, Ohio, that led to this travesty.
“WHYYYYYY WHY WHY. Why.” -- K. Sekelesky, via Instagram/Twitter. (“Ditto.” – Fritinancy.)
Now let’s unimagine it, if we can.
Pierogi are Polish dumplings. Sophie’s Choice is the title of a novel by William Styron that became a film starring Meryl Streep as Sophie. The “choice” of the title is an excruciating one: to survive a Nazi death camp, Sophie must sacrifice one of her children.
Let us review:
I don’t care if your beloved founder is named Sophie. I don’t care if she chose the ingredients, the recipe, and the wacky label art. I will not listen to your argument about “choice” being an adjective meaning “of fine quality.” I don’t care if you call it an homage, and I don’t care how you pronounce “homage.”
I definitely won’t listen to arguments about Polish jokes.
Here’s the thing: Literature renders some names off limits. In this case, William Styron got there first, and thanks to him, “Sophie’s Choice” now stands for something horrific.*
Unless you are truly tasteless—a damning thing to say about a food company—you do not get to name your product “Sophie’s Choice.”
I enjoy a little word puzzle as much as, or maybe more than, the next public-transit user. But two Bay Area bus-shelter signs, both for worthy nonprofit organizations, go beyond puzzling to confounding.
“Do You Really Want the City 7 x 7 x 7?” asks this poster. I stood in front of it for a couple of minutes, trying to stitch together “Do you really want the city” and “7 x 7 x 7.” What could it possibly mean?
Is Cadillac a whipped underdog? That’s what I infer from the automaker’s new “Dare Greatly” campaign, from Publicis, which will kick off during Sunday’s Academy Awards broadcast. I caught the teaser ad at a Berkeley movie theater before a screening of the Best Foreign Film nominee Timbuktu, which is about the violent clash between cattle herders and religious extremists in Mali. (The dissonance between ad and movie was so thick it would have taken a cleaver to slice it. But I digress.)
Here’s the spot:
The script isn’t credited, but it’s lifted from “Citizenship in a Republic,” a 1910 speech given at the Sorbonne in Paris by Theodore Roosevelt, then one year out of the White House. The youthful-sounding female voiceover, the moody music, the slow-mo near-black-and-white imagery: they’re intended to make you think—no, not think, feel—that Something Important Is About to Happen. Something moving and portentous and great. But is that really what we’re being told?
1712, from addle (n.) “urine, liquid filth,” from Old English adela “mud, mire, liquid manure” (cognate with Old Swedish adel “urine,: Middle Low German adel, Dutch aal “puddle”).
Used in noun phrase addle egg (mid-13c.) “egg that does not hatch, rotten egg,” literally “urine egg,” a loan-translation of Latin ovum urinum, which is itself an erroneous loan-translation of Greek ourion oon “putrid egg,” literally “wind egg,” from ourios “of the wind” (confused by Roman writers with ourios “of urine,” from ouron “urine”). Because of this usage, from c.1600 the noun in English was taken as an adjective meaning “putrid,” and thence given a figurative extension to “empty, vain, idle,” also “confused, muddled, unsound” (1706). The verb followed a like course. Related: Addled; addling.
My favorite addle compound is addlepated, as in “What were those addlepated people thinking when they came up with this name?”
“Grow Up Strong and Harmless.” But not armless, obviously.
I … don’t get this. I mean, “Grow Up Strong”—sure, fine, OK. But how does one “Grow Up Harmless”? What could that possibly mean?
“Harmless” has several dictionary definitions: inoffensive (“He seems harmless enough”) and benign (“harmless bacteria”) are the most familiar. There’s also a legal definition, the one we see in the boilerplate language “to hold harmless”: “free from loss or legal liability.”
But the WF ad doesn’t appear to use “harmless” in any of those senses. Instead—as far as I can tell—it’s meant to be a synonym for “kind” or “ethical.” Or possibly “Without Causing Harm to Anything on the Planet.” That’s quite a semantic leap, and, frankly, senseless.
Then again, I may just be too square for the rarefied sensibilities of Partners & Spade, which has built its reputation on too-cool-for-school chic. The agency’s inverted name is one tipoff; its strenuously self-effacing tagline—“A Well-Intentioned Endeavor”—is another. The P&S client list is a hipster honor roll: Warby Parker, Shinola, Harry’s shaving products. The Spade on the nameplate is Andy Spade, husband of Kate and co-founder of the fashion label Kate Spadeand the grownup jammies label Sleepy Jones. I’d tweet a query about “harmless,” to P&S, but the account’s been moribund for more than a year. Too cool for Twitter, even!
The “harmless” Whole Foods ad triggered my recollection of another grocery-store “harmless.”
The first time I encountered this name I thought it sounded weirdly apologetic: damning with the faintest of praise. But at least it has alliteration on its side; Whole Foods’ “harmless” just sounds confused.
I did find one use of “harmless” that’s not merely well intentioned but also well targeted: Harmless.org, a UK organization that helps “people who self harm, their friends and families and professionals.” At last—someone who knows how to keep “harmless” out of harm’s way.
Validate: To make legally valid; to sanction; to confirm or corroborate; to authorize; to verify. (“The court validated the contract”; “The judge validated the election”). From Latin validatus, participle form of validus: strong, powerful, effective. Related to valiant.
Those are the primary definitions of validate in all of the major dictionaries I consulted: American Heritage, OED, Merriam-Webster, and Macmillan. But validate has some specialized meanings, too, one of which baffled me recently.
This usage is common in the U.S. “Parking validation” refers to a stamp on a parking receipt that gives the bearer discounted or free access to a parking space. (This usage does mystify some people, mostly non-Americans: see anxious questions at WiseGeek, Yahoo Answers, and Trip Advisor.) Here, “validate” has the “sanction” meaning: a validation sticker or stamp confirms the bearer’s right to park in a private lot or garage. (I couldn’t determine when this usage first cropped up, or who the original parking-validator was. I’d love to know.)
And because I survived the Psychobabble Era, I know another usage of validate: “to cause a person to feel valued, significant, or worthwhile; to affirm that a person’s feelings, opinions, desires, etc. have validity, truth, or worth.” (Adapted from OED, whose earliest citation for this usage was published in a 1951 journal of child-development research.)
Validation, “a fable about the magic of free parking.” The short film was directed by Kurt Kuenne; the title plays on two meanings of “validate.” Watch here.
The validate usage that confused me came from a prospective client, a marketing person who works in technology. This person asked me to “validate” a product name the company already uses. I read the request in the legal sense: “Confirm our position; tell us we’re doing the correct thing.” And I was flummoxed, because I don’t see my role as that of a rubber-stamp.
But it turns out my client had a different definition mind. This validate means something closer to “Evaluate the correctness of the name.”
My realization came when, soon after I got the “validate” request, I happened to be chatting with an acquaintance who does data analysis for drug companies’ clinical trials. I asked her whether she’d ever used “validate” to mean anything other than “confirm,” and she, well, confirmed that she had. In drug testing, she said, “to validate” means “to demonstrate that a process maintains a desired level of compliance at all stages.” (I’ve subbed in the language of a Wikipedia entry to be sure I got it right.)
Wikipedia opened my eyes to a whole spectrum of validations. There’s data validation: ensuring that data inserted into an application satisfies defined formats. There’s regression model validation in statistics: determining whether a model fits the data well. There’s forecast validation: verifying prognostic output from a numerical model.
The “evaluate” sense of validate comes from software engineering (and from engineering generally). Here’s how a Wikipedia entry on validation and verification puts it:
Validation checks that the product design satisfies or fits the intended use (high-level checking), i.e., the software meets the user requirements. This is done through dynamic testing and other forms of review. … Software validation confirms that the product, as provided, will fulfill its intended use.
Software validation is one thing, but name validation? I’ve been doing naming development in many areas, including technology, for many years, but I’d never been asked to “validate” a name. It was as though I were encountering a new language; no wonder I felt at sea.
I’m a quick study when I need to learn about arcane subjects like cybersecurity, surgical stents, or field-programmable gate arrays. I like learning my clients’ specialized vocabulary. But when we’re discussing my specialty, I’d prefer that they drop the jargon. If my clients aren’t familiar with my own lingo (sound symbolism, naming brief, suggestive names), I’ll use common, non-shibboleth-y English in our discussions of branding. Otherwise we risk misunderstanding, as we did with validate.
What I experienced with validate was what, in a series of posts for Language Log, the linguist Geoffrey Pullum has called nerdview*. Here’s how Pullum defines nerdview inhis most recent post on the subject, published September 12:
Nerdview stems from a failure of something fundamentally human and highly relevant to linguistic communication: to do linguistic communication you have to appreciate that the other human has a viewpoint, a perspective, and it may not be the same as yours. You have to be able to think about things from their point of view.
In his new book on language and usage, The Sense of Style, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker suggests that a lot of jargon-packed writing can be blamed on the Curse of Knowledge: “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” When you’ve learned something so well “that you forget that other people may not know it,” Pinker writes, “you also forget to check whether they know it.”
I’ll have more to say about The Sense of Style in a future post. Meanwhile, I’m just grateful I’ve learned to define validate in Nerd Dialect.
* Some would argue that the more technically correct term would be geekview. That argument may itself be an example of nerdview.
I bring glad tidings for Festivus 2013! Last week Denver celebrated its second annual Beer Festivus (“A Beer Festival for the Rest of Us!”). There’s a Festivus pole constructed of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans inside the Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida, erected by “artist/protester/drinker of cheap beer Chaz Stevens” to protest the Nativity scene in the same government building. And I’m back for the fifth consecutive year with a public Airing of Grievances, one of the canonical rites of this defiantly non-canonical holiday.
If you go in for tradition, Festivus is celebrated on December 23. But we Festivusians say feh! to tradition. We also say, “I’ve got a lot of problems with you people!”