September 11, 2014
(++++) WHAT WE SAY AND HOW WE SAY IT
How to Speak Brit: The Quintessential Guide to the King’s English, Cockney Slang, and Other Flummoxing British Phrases. By Christopher J. Moore. Gotham Books. $20.
Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas. By John Pollack. Gotham Books. $27.
Incomplete rather than “quintessential,” Christopher J. Moore’s How to Speak Brit is nevertheless enjoyable enough, and fact-packed enough, to be both informative and a lot of fun. The book professes to show English speakers (American version) how “real” English speakers (British version) talk, why they use particular phrases in specific ways, and where some idioms come from. It largely fails in the last of these endeavors, with Moore quite often saying no one is sure where this word or that, this phrase or that, comes from. But in other respects, this short book (a mere 120 pages) has a good deal of highly engaging information. There are numerous explanations of British words and phrases that Americans are unlikely to know, such as “send someone to Coventry” (ostracize or ignore the person), “gone for a Burton” (World War II phrase used of an airman who had been killed or was missing in action), “pottering” (Americans would say “puttering,” the reference in Britain being specifically to doing little things in one’s garden), “curate’s egg” (something that is good in parts but not as a whole), and “lollipop man” (“crossing guard” in the United States). Oddly, though, there are also a number of entries of words and phrases that Moore seems to think are uniquely British but that will be quite familiar in the U.S.: “Dickensian,” “binge-drinking,” “goody two shoes,” “lame duck,” “by hook or by crook,” “raining cats and dogs,” and many more. When Moore does present the history or derivation of a word or phrase, the information is often fascinating: “yob” (hooligan), for example, is “boy” spelled backward, while “whinge” (complain or moan) derives from “whine” but refers to the content of the complaint rather than its sound. There is a lot left out of How to Speak Brit – for example, the very brief entry on Cockney rhyming slang, under the entry “dog and bone,” is a tremendous disservice to some highly colorful language, compounded by the fact that Moore does not really explain how the system works or why. But this is a book to enjoy for what it is rather than one to criticize for what it is not. There is something purely delightful in reading about shandy (beer mixed with lemonade or ginger beer), toff (someone with more money than sense), and argy-bargy (a playful word for a disagreement) – far better to enjoy what is here than to bemoan what is left out.
There is less amusement and more seriousness in the use of language as discussed by former Bill Clinton speechwriter John Pollack in Shortcut. Pollack here analyzes analogies, those figures of speech in which something is compared to something else with, ideally, a subtle use of framing to make a difficult subject seem easy or a complex one simple. Pollack, of course, draws largely on politics to make his points; for instance, he discusses President George W. Bush’s comment on criticism of the U.S. war in Iraq, “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people.” Pollack correctly argues that this analogy to childhood rules and requirements subtly indicates that the United States will not be treated like a disobedient child by the international community – raising American listeners’ ire even though, in reality, war and school permission slips have nothing to do with each other. The point of analogies, in fact, is that they make things seem to be parallel even when they are not: good analogies can certainly make difficult subjects understandable, but poor or manipulative ones (like some of those created by Pollack himself) can be designed to move public opinion with more subtlety than propaganda but no more truthfulness. Analogies, Pollack writes, meet five criteria: using what is familiar to explain what is not; highlighting the similarities between things while passing over or obscuring differences; identifying useful abstractions; telling a coherent story; and resonating emotionally – a particular requirement for analogies in the political context. “Analogies encourage and sometimes even force our thoughts in certain directions,” says Pollack, and of course this has value far beyond politics – in advertising, for example. Pollack’s discussions of ads and of attempts to change public perception in other ways – by making football games seem less like war in order to draw more female fans, for example – are trenchant and well considered. Other elements of Shortcut go farther afield, though, with somewhat less success, such as his discussion of the Wright Brothers on the basis that flight is analogous to riding a bicycle – a point that could have been made more effectively at less length. Still, Pollack brings up intriguing elements regarding analogies, such as Thomas Edison’s citation of them as one of the three essential qualities for an inventor (the first being persistence, the second imagination, and the third “a logical mind that sees analogies”) and Albert Einstein’s remark that elemental laws cannot be discovered through logic but only through “a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.” The usefulness of thinking by using analogies becomes clear in a variety of anecdotes in Shortcut, such as the discussion of Swiss engineer George de Mistral’s analogical development of Velcro after finding his socks covered in tiny burrs. This particular analogy was not exactly a shortcut, since the development took 15 years; but in other cases, the effect of analogies is nearly immediate, and this can be true when analogies compete. Pollack points this out when comparing Ford’s notoriously unsuccessful Edsel being described in positive terms by The New York Times as having taillights with “the graceful wingspread of a sea gull” but by others as having a front grille that looked like a toilet seat – the latter analogy being the one that captured the public’s imagination and doomed the car. Pollack is, unsurprisingly, rather too forgiving of the use (and misuse) of analogies in politics, although he does note that these comparisons can be taken to vicious extremes, as when Adolf Hitler referred to Jews as “a virus” and compared his treatment of them to “the same sort of battle waged…by Pasteur and [German physician Heinrich] Koch.” Shortcut is scarcely a complete exploration of thinking and persuading by analogy, but it is a well-written and often entertaining one, even though it comes to the rather wishy-washy conclusion that “while a good shortcut is a great thing, a bad one can lead us astray.” True. And it is worth remembering that the author was, for a time, in the business of explicitly creating analogies designed to lead people, if not astray, at least in a particular direction. Indeed, he remains in an analogous business – as a communications consultant for politicians and Fortune 500 companies.