Friday, March 26, 2010

Notes on Words

I always wince when I hear some politician or journalist use the phrase “bully pulpit” to mean that the presidency is “a good pulpit from which to bully”—when the actual meaning that Theodore Roosevelt intended was: “The presidency is an excellent pulpit,” or “The presidency is a splendid pulpit.” He was using an informal expression current in his time. Even in Teddy’s time, the President could easily attract media attention, and that’s all that he had in mind. I don’t believe the phrase would ever be used today were it not for the fact that the word acquired the principal meaning of Webster’s 2 a: a blustering browbeating fellow; esp. : one habitually cruel to others weaker than himself. The word used to mean sweetheart and fine chap, being derived from the German buhle by way of the Dutch boel, both meaning lover. It still means, in addition to 2.a. above a pimp, a hired ruffian, and in dialectical British English a fellow workman. Webster’s still lists the adjectival meanings of excellent and first rate. And some may still recall the nineteenth century slang expression used here, bully for you! Jolly good word, that, bully.

Culture wars begin when one side tries to force your women to wear a veil — or when you try to force freedom and democracy down their throat at the point of a gun. Regime change is deliberate double talk to suggest something drastic but ultimately benevolent, something akin to a painful but necessary cancer operation. It's actually an attempt to cover in a clinical phrase the fusion of two ideas: one is that we are militarily and economically powerful and therefore can bully (there is that word again) other nations to be quiet; the other is that we are willing to overstep the line and engage in unjust war. The media, repeating the phrase without quotes around it, are abandoning their supposed mission. I picture the Canadian government announcing that it aims at regime change in the United States…

The tonalities used by the current and the last administration as they discuss Pakistan reveals to me something I keep observing elsewhere. It is that we are still engaged in relationships toward all parts of the globe, exempting only Europe and Israel, as if we were dealing with inferiors whose cultures, life-styles, and institutions we can discuss insultingly in public. Our media follow suit. We’ve acquired, without even noticing, the worst habits of Rule Britannia. Hence we cannot understand “why they hate us.” I do. I’ve got imagination. How would we react to a successful Chinese invasion followed by forcible herding of our elites to till the soil in re-educational camps while our crassly ambitious, a category plentifully populated, is helped to form single party rule? Hey! It may actually happen some day. Let us not forget the very useful rule of governance long held to be a kind of law in China: the regime that loses its virtue loses the Mandate of Heaven.


  1. All I can say to this is:

    Wooly bully, wooly bully.
    Wooly bully, wooly bully, wooly bully.

    Written by Domingo Samudio
    Originally performed by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.

  2. I see, from this, that "bully's" career is far from over...