Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Honorable Thomas P. Agresti vs. The English Language

I love the proscriptive nature of the English language – usually. We have tropes that span ages and cultures. We have words and wit and puns galore. We have the freedom to bastardize words from antiquity like “decimate” so that they become synonymous with words like “annihilate” and everybody can still understand what the speaker meant.

But every once in a while there’s a speaker who redefines a word or botches a metaphor so terribly that one wants to tar and the perpetrator. Today, in the court of A minotaur’s þencan, the Honorable Thomas P. Agresti, shall be brought to task.

The charges:

1 count of unnecessarily mixing metaphors; 1 count of improper usage of political cliché and jargon; and 1 count of misquoting Shakespeare.

Exhibit A:

“Countrywide Financial Tells Judge It 'Recreated' Letters –NYT,” The New York Times 08 January 2008. 08 January 2008.


In paragraph three of the aforementioned article, Judge Agresti, references the ‘recreated’ letters referenced in the headline, saying “These letters are a smoking gun that something is not right in Denmark[.]” If his Honor had stopped speaking after the word gun or if he had simply misquoted the bard in the second half of his statement, there would be no need for any of the rigmarole that has brought us here today. Unfortunately, his failure to keep his mouth shut and to check his sources has resulted in a lingual travesty of a magnitude that hasn’t been seen since President George Bush redefined basic words when he describe the US financial markets as “strong and solid” on 4 January 2008.

But, let’s parse this mal mot one charge at a time starting with “smoking gun.” These days, everybody and their brother owns a smoking gun: Iran has a smoking gun; there were smoking guns during the Enron trial; Iraq has had more smoking guns than militants! In some up coming news story the public can expect proof of a fraudulent arms deal to come in the form of a smoking gun. As early as 2004 the public was sick enough of this word for it to make Lake Superior State* University’s “List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness.” Perhaps Judge Agresti was trying to be counter-cultural through his blatant disregard of public opinion?

Moving on to the Shakespeare quote: The phrase is not “something is not right in Denmark.” That’s the equivalent of a deep fried Barbie doll attributing “like you could be or not be,” to Hamlet. If an educated person is going to quote one of the greatest writers in the history of Western culture, then get it right! As written by the bard and spoken by Marcellus, the quote is “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Such literary incompetence in a judge must be noted immediately or else society faces the danger of this laxity towards the written and spoken work spreading like a cancer to all parts of its sectors from pool boys to presidents. Shit. Too late.

As far as the third count, only one metaphor was needed to communicate the gravity of the situation. Either stick with the clichéd gun or the trope of Demark. Do not combine them for the same reasons why one would not use phrases like “smokes like a fish,” or “sleeps like a lying dog.”




The Honorable Thomas P. Agresti is strongly encouraged to enroll in one (1) creative writing classes and two (2) classes surveying western literature.

* Thank you Anonymous. It is quite funny.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly.
But, for the sake of argument, if you had misattributed something in this post, wouldn't it be kind of funny?

It's Lake Superior STATE University.