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The linguistics of a political brouhaha

The linguistics of a political brouhaha
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First Published: Tue, May 18 2010. 01 15 AM IST

Updated: Wed, May 26 2010. 12 53 PM IST
In the first week of April, to the amusement of language lovers, there was an exchange reported in the media on the meaning and appropriateness of the saying, “The buck stops here”.
Speaking about the Naxal menace in West Bengal, Union home minister P. Chidambaram said the buck must stop on the chief minister’s table. The latter’s response was both political and linguistic. He said he knew his responsibilities, and added, “Buck is not the language of politicians. It is slang.”
A standard dictionary records more than a dozen meanings under the headword “buck”.
Three of these uses are relevant to this discussion. The first is “buck” in the sense of a dollar: “That will cost you 15 bucks.” This is the only use of “buck” that dictionaries as a rule label as slang. There is speculation about the origin of this name. Some linguists say it is derived from buckskin, which was used as a medium of exchange among Indians and Europeans during the frontier days.
The second use is in the phrase “pass the buck”. As West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee pointed out, the phrase comes from the game of poker. To ensure a fair chance for all the players, the deal changed hands during sessions. When one person had finished his turn, he would pass a marker to the player who had to deal next. This marker was often a knife with a buckhorn handle. So the marker came to be known as a buck. “Passing the buck” meant handing over the marker to the next person. This use is dated 1865. Later, when the buckhorn knife was replaced by a silver coin, the word came to mean a dollar.
From this literal meaning developed the metaphorical meaning, in which no real buck was present. “Passing the buck” means evading responsibility, shifting blame to another. This meaning dates from about 1900. This phrase is labelled “informal” or “colloquial” and not slang in dictionaries.
The third expression is “The buck stops here,” about which there was much to-do in the April polemics. This phrase, too, may be considered informal, and not slang. Former US president Harry Truman had a sign with this inscription placed on his desk. This was a solemn pledge assuring Americans that he would never shirk his responsibility; he would be answerable for the way he ran the government.
This is, therefore, President’s English. In January, after the failed Christmas day bombing attempt, US President Barack Obama declared, “The buck stops with me”. He said he was less interested in passing out blame than in learning from and correcting the mistakes.
If we look at the language aspect of the April episode, we need to clear away at least two misconceptions about slang. One is that slang is bad language. Samuel Johnson thought it would destroy the English language. But G.K. Chesterton defended slang, saying, “All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry.” When speakers get tired of old clichés, they begin to reshape existing words or invent new ones. These are casual, picturesque and often humorous expressions. They linger on the border of standard English for a time, and then either disappear or get absorbed into standard English. OK or okay, which bids fair to become the world’s most frequently used word, is of slang origin, and is traced to the jocular misspelling “oll korrect”. Considering its utility, it has to be accepted into standard usage.
The second misconception is that slang is an American commodity, and before it crossed the Atlantic, the English of England was simon-pure. Slang is a plant of ubiquitous growth. Indian English, too, has contributed its share, with terms such as ABCD, eve-teasing and item song. Canada, Australia and New Zealand have their own varieties.
The proliferation of slang is a sign that the English language is well and kicking. As poet Carl Sandburg wrote, “Slang is language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work.”
Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com
VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column
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First Published: Tue, May 18 2010. 01 15 AM IST