Monday, June 23, 2008

ginning up excitement for wagging the dog

while i may not have any real life credentials, in my head, at least, i like to consider myself an amateur linguist. this is a difficult hobby/pasttime/non-paying profession when you are immersed in a culture where you don't speak the language. every month we splurge on one or two books each to be passed around, and the extent of our magazine collection is the "US Weekly" and "Allure" that come in my mom's care package.

anyway, as soon as i got back onto american soil in june, i stopped at the newsstand at the cincinnati airport to load up on the monthly periodicals i'd been missing since moving to europe. namely, esquire to read chuck klosterman's column. but i picked up a vanity fair to add to the reading material, and an in style* to serve as a picture book.

needless to say we've been devouring this sudden wellspring of english-language journalism. during reading i've come across two interesting phrases, both from political articles.

the first is "gin up," used in the article "the cynic and senator obama," from esquire. Here's the sentence:

"...the Republicans masterfully used the threat of gay people getting married to gin up turnout where they needed it most."

i think the meaning is pretty clear from the context, but i looked it up just to be sure. the meaning is "to enliven, make more exciting" but it's seemingly also used as a synonym for create or generate. you can gin up turn out, gin up interest, or gin up a new way to do something. it comes from the phrase of the same meaning, to "ginger up," which is taken from a method of placing part of the ginger root under a horse's tail to make it perk up at shows. (info from various online etymology dictionaries, and the New York Times article On Language: Whitewater Words, which is full of awesome idioms coined in the Clinton era).

thought it doesn't have a political origin, it seems to be used quite often (okay, based on a cursory google search, but still) used in political headlines. such as:

FBI pressured to gin up Iraq-Al Qaeda links
Huckabee sweeps through SC to gin up support
NW Repubican: Hateful moonbats gin up fake outrage

next question, what is a hateful moonbat?

ANYWAY, the next one that caught my eye was "wag the dog," from The Last Good Campaign in Vanity Fair. The article about Bobby Kennedy's 1968 campaign contained the following sentence:

"Kennedy was concerned that, if he ran, an increasingly unstable Lyndon Johnson might 'wag the dog,' provoking an international crisis or even starting a war to upstage the challenger's candidacy."

so, obviously, wag the dog means to divert attention from one problematic event by creating another for the attention to be focused on. the phrase comes from the saying "a dog is smarter than his tail," and if he weren't, the tail would wag the dog. (Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms). the most notable use of the phrase is in the movie Wag the Dog starring Dustin Hoffman, where i believe a fake war is launched to divert attention from a sex scandal (and who doesn't love dustin hoffman, really? for my money, movies featuring pirates, crocodiles and flying ageless men don't get better than Hook.)

so these are two phrases that i'm hoping will come into more common use. i'm planning to start ginning up excitement for lucerna this weekend on tuesday. and if any questionable events occur, i will certainly wag the dog on saturday afternoon by focusing attention on more important questions, such as how dark "kelly green" actually is or what an epic influence "google in your brain" would have on humanity.


*why do i buy in style, really? i am not "in style" or really even close, for that matter. most days i don't wear make up. today i didn't wash my hair. and also, i wear jeans and t-shirts everyday. i guess it's wishful thinking. in my mind's eye, i see myself, someday, with the closet of carrie bradshaw.

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