Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Friday, January 23, 2004

Our Slippery Language

Thirty years ago, when the members of The Firesign Theatre went on the David Susskind Show, Susskind couldn't quite figure them out, nor did they seem terribly eager to let him into their surreal world. At one point I remember Phil Proctor talked about how they "play with words, but the meanings keep slipping off," as he caused himself simultaneously to start sliding off his chair.

I'm still not sure Susskind "got it" by show's end, but ever since I saw the video of that program Phil's bit has stuck with me. I've always been fascinated by how people can use and twist language to whatever end, be it comedic or rhetorical or even sinister. The last usage has received a lot of press lately, and I'd like to recommend two very good bits I've found. The first is BuzzFlash's interview with George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at the University of California Berkeley. (Yes, I'm biased, I majored in English and Linguistics at college, and I knew of Noam Chomsky from that field long before I ever heard of his political writing.) The interview's intro says Lakoff "is a specialist in the technique of 'framing,' a communication tool that creates a 'frame' for a message that defines the terms of the debate. Lakoff, like BuzzFlash, believes that the Republicans are experts at framing, while the Democrats hardly appear to understand how the technique works at all." The second is a post on The American Street by Jeff Alworth about this week's State of the Union speech, which borrowed a few terms from this article by Renata Brooks about Bush's "intentional use of language to dominate others." Both well worth reading.

And just to bring this back around to Firesign, someone on last night's chat said, "Did you know that 'bushing' is a term from a WA statute? It means to lure someone into a bad deal."