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Lost in Translation, Chicago Tribune, March 30, 2008

Words are the most familiar part of language, because it’s words we’re most conscious of learning and forgetting. Only certain words, though. Your word-of-the-day calendar will never list “the” or “but.” You boast about knowing French numbers, not the pronouns. What draws our fascination is the words for things, actions, properties and the other stuff of the world, not archaic prepositions.

This is how those words are put together: Take a word, any old word, and say it to yourself 20 times out loud, until it loses its meaning and becomes just an absurd string of sounds. A word that has fallen far from its Latin source works very well for this: “fluff.” Fluff. Fluff. Now restore this absurd string (f-l-u-f) to its meaning (fuzzy, feathery dust or fibers). Now you’ve glimpsed what a word is: a grafting of the arbitrary onto the utterly conventional.

If you were to forget that a word has these two halves, you would become vulnerable to thinking that words have mystical properties, that words like “fluff” have the very attributes of fluffiness. This is the path to the world of abracadabra peekaboo, in which if you can grasp the secrets of the right words (the thinking goes), the whole world will be revealed.

Words in and of themselves are about as interesting as nails. Which is to say, I find that what one does with words more interesting than the words themselves. A nail is inert unless it’s being hit by a hammer grasped by an arm attached to a brain with a plan. So, too, with words. They can be the sharp point of the action, but they’re not the actors, and they don’t explain the action. If you try to tell the history of architecture through a history of nails, you get lots of blacksmiths, anvils and photos of nailheads buried in wood, but nothing about designing, building, or the other activities of architecture. Likewise, shaking down words for the keys to the secrets of American life, social or political or whatever, is an esoteric practice akin to cabala. It obscures more than it reveals, and is more elitist than it seems.

Being more pragmatic in my outlook, I’m more interested in people and their relationship to words than in words alone. For a real slice of life I prefer phrase books, books that are intended to help the reader do something. Two of my favorites are “Farm and Ranch Spanish” and “Spanish for the Housewife,” written in the 1970s and reprinted in the 1990s by two Texans. The books are intended to “give the reader a working knowledge of Spanish, therefore saving much time and getting better results on the job, be it on the farm, ranch or in the home.”

They’re flawed and narrow but perfect depictions of a worldview. They’re also so lily white and proper, I’m not sure how people who use them get “better results.” If you don’t have words for bodily functions and all the other outputs that make up the cycle of life and death on farms and ranches, how do you get things done? And if you only have the formal Spanish pronoun usted, not the familiar pronoun tu, how do you bring your Spanish-speaking employees into your confidence and social intimacy?

I’m less charged up by dictionaries, which have always seemed like boxes of nails. And I’ve never warmed to William Safire, who has always put a lot of stock in words and their singular importance. The title of his long-running column for The New York Times proclaims that he’s writing “On Language,” but it should actually be “On Words.” He’s billed as a language maven. He should really be called a vocabulary shaman.

Politics is verby. It’s full of actors and audiences, people doing, resisting, manipulating, leading, apologizing, dealing, sneaking around. In other words, putting words to work. We’re fascinated by the Spitzer scandal because of its salacious verbiness. As static as it has become, the Democratic presidential nominating process is still fairly verby.

“Safire’s Political Dictionary,” now out in a new paperback edition, is overwhelmingly nouny. He’s all about the nails. In fact, his focus is so noun heavy, he doesn’t list a verb until Page 40: “ballyhoo.” Don’t be fooled by “ballot box stuffing” on Page 39; that “-ing” marks the gerund, not the progressive verb. The next verb doesn’t appear until Page 44, with “barnstorm.” And after that, it’s enough nouns to leave you logy: “bedsheet ballot,” “benign neglect,” “big stick.” Ah, here’s a genuine political verb: “bloviate.”

Want to tell me the language of American politics? Give me in-house style memos at K Street spin shops and Senate men’s room graffiti. Give me Google searches as trends over time, then show me the words that political Web site developers use to get their sites higher on search engines. Above all, tell me something about how people make sense of words and images—give me brain scans of average Americans as they watch CNN and Fox News side by side. But don’t ask me to believe in the mystical power of words. “This is a lexicon of conflict and drama, of fulsome praise and fierce ridicule, of emotional pleading and intellectual persuasion,” Safire writes. But the conjunctions “and,” “but,” “or” and “so” are also a lexicon of conflict and drama—in fact, little drama could take place without them.

Safire’s dictionary certainly has its charms. It charts how some words and phrases became political tools (see the entries “is is, meaning of” and “macaca”), and it’s packed with historical and political arcana (see the entry on “root, hog, or die,” a political proverb from the 1830s), compliments that are slurs, slurs that look like something else, and even ventures into foreign politics with an entry on Adolf Hitler’s use of the phrase “the night of the long knives” and a reference to Winston Churchill’s poodle. “Great men do well to have small dogs,” the lexicographer writes in the entry “Checkers speech,” about Richard Nixon’s 1952 speech denying he had received secret funds for personal use. The longest entry appears to be for ” CIA-ese,” or “spookspeak,” which includes the terms “family jewels” and “wafflebottom” (“Rendition” gets its own entry).

But once I realized Safire’s book isn’t comprehensive enough to be a reliable reference work, it struck me that it’s not even a dictionary, and it’s not about words. It’s not a phrase book either. What Safire has written is a postmodern political novel, arranged in a nonlinear fashion. It’s a sprawling epic of American politics from the Revolution to the current day (with special emphasis on Watergate), arranged as fragments full of characters and scenes, in which the narrator, who calls himself “the lexicographer,” pops up at random moments of political insiderness, claiming to be tracing the political lives of words. This kind of kaleidoscopic novel about American politics is one that Jorge Luis Borges or Roberto Bolano might have written if Safire hadn’t, a novel about a made-up political system.

Scholars and pundits have pumped out a steady stream of analysis of political speaking and speeches, as if digging out the intent that lay behind the words is equivalent to their political impact. This is a dodge. Less and less do these words come from leaders’ own pens than from their speechwriters and political consultants’ pens. It’s hard to stop glorifying the intention, though, because digging in the heads of political leaders is more glamorous than figuring out the brains of average folks. People who study political communication know surprisingly little about how people listen and what makes them change their behavior, even though massive portions of our economy (think advertising, education and health care) are dedicated to those pursuits.

What’s needed is a history of political listening, not another one about political speaking; a history of audiences, not more on speechmakers. Not a count of words that were spoken, written, or broadcast, but the list of words that were heard. This is what keeps Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” on the best-seller lists: It discards the mystery of how words and images work and focuses on how people work. That’s where the action is, with the hammer, the arm and the brain, but not the measly nail.