Words in the mansion of the Visual Thesaurus occasionally lose their bearings and wander into our small corner of it, the Language Lounge, where we are always happy to help them find their way back home. Lately, the fine weather has lured us outdoors, and several lost lexemes have been adrift in the lounge for weeks. On a beastly hot day we decided to crank up the air-con and restore these fallen fellows to their rightful places.

A Question of Which is to be Master

Throe was our first project. She wandered into the lounge dazed and confused several weeks ago, after being bandied about ruthlessly in the media. Years had passed with hardly a single recorded use in the singular and then suddenly the Secretary of Defense, responding to the vice president's "last throes" remark about the insurgency in Iraq, was going on about what sort of throe that might be going down there: "The lethality is up," Rumsfeld said. "Last throes could be a violent last throe, just as well as a placid or calm last throe. Look it up in the dictionary." With all the flak and furious flipping of pages that followed, including just about every language, political, and comic pundit weighing in on the matter, throe was anything but placid or calm and did not feel that she could maintain her quiet place in the VT without a bolstering of confidence.

Never much of a happy camper, throe partakes of nothing but distress, suffering and agony. No one seems to dispute this aspect of her meaning in regard to Iraq. But the essential thing about throe - which we mentioned by way of reassurance, while gently stroking her ascenders -is that the word always characterizes multiple events over time, whether long or short. We would almost go so far as to say that throes (despite the dictionary, or lemmatized form) is effectively a plurale tantum: that is, a word like clothes or scissors that effectively has no singular existence in English. A single throe, which no one seems to know about except Mr. Rumsfeld, is more likely to be called a pang or a spasm. So we sent throe back to her place with a renewed sense of rightness, assuring her that she was not subject to fall, Humpty Dumpty-like, from her perch, simply because of hasty usage in high places. In passing, this reminded us of Alice's conversation with the fragile, epimural ovoidian:

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master-that's all."

It's a Steal

A more recent arrival in the lounge was stealth. We were quite surprised to find him stealing behind the sofa. It is usually words with some degree of ambiguity that suffer the greatest abuse from careless users before wandering into the Lounge in a battered state. Stealth is not exactly a double-edged sword: once you take in the notion of silence, movement, and avoiding detection, you've got stealth pretty well summed up. The problem stealth was having was this: a gentleman in Chicago, Mr. Leo Stoller, thinks he owns the trademark to 'stealth' and he goes around suing or writing threatening letters to those who use it for commercial purposes. Poor stealth felt that his status as full-blooded English word, with all attendant freedoms thereof, was threatened.

Our advice to stealth, and to any word so threatened, was to chill. We noted that Mr. Stoller, while he may have a good understanding of identifying possible revenue streams, was missing an essential point about trademarks: defense of them only holds water when there is a chance that the public might become confused by some upstart's use of the trademark and so think that they are getting the original trademark owner's product. In the case at hand, Mr. Stoller was upset that Sony Corporation had the temerity to name a movie Stealth when he purportedly sells sporting equipment under the "stealth" trademark. When was the last time you mistook a blockbuster for a basketball?

Too Darn Hot

The recent G8 summit at Gleneagles in Scotland had the whole VT in jitters, and if you noticed the words squirming on your screen more than usually in recent weeks, you can probably attribute it to this: when communiqués are hammered out among diverse nations, each with various axes to grind, no word can be considered safe. The Lounge Wardens were alerted to the hubbub in this case not by lost lexemes, but by a catfight between two pugnacious words, issue and challenge. On July 5th, President Bush characterized climate change as "a significant, long-term issue that we've got to deal with." This got issue feeling rather pleased with herself, but only a few days later, the G8 issued its communiqué on climate change with this statement: "We face serious and linked challenges in tackling climate change . . ." Challenge then felt, perhaps rightfully, that he had won the day. Is there really much of a difference between the words?

With a few swift keystrokes, we simplified the matter first, by turning off the verb display in the VT: issue and challenge both are quite polysemous (that is, they have many meanings), and they threatened to semantically overwhelm our investigation. Once thus simplified, here's what we found. While seemingly interchangeable in some contexts, the two words are remote from each other in the Visual Thesaurus, and for good reason: they have different lineages, and come to us at the end of very different histories of meaning. While they both might be classified under the notion of situation or state of affairs, an issue is most often something that comes to be, and then is subject to observation or thought: its many clusters of meaning reflect this; you'll see upshot, result, effect, topic, matter, and emergence among the halo of words surrounding it. A challenge, on the other hand, is something that, without regard to provenance, requires action. It is, by its nature, demanding; it can't go, uh, unchallenged.

So we broke up this small contretemps between the two nouns, assuring issue that many would continue to think and talk about climate change, but that challenge, an action word from the get-go, got the nod at Gleneagles for a good reason. And with that, peace and quiet descended on the lounge again.

If you're still in the throes of trying to understand throes, here's a thoughtful wade through:

http://www.juancole.com/2005/06/it-depends-on-what-throes-is-it.html

You can read about the stealth-usurper in this article from the Australian Age. It appeared originally in the New York Times, where you can also find it, but it is now archived with premium material:

http://www.theage.com.au/news/business/man-of-few-words-speaks-language-of-litigation/2005/07/05/1120329445828.html?oneclick=true

If this has simply whetted your appetite and you now wonder what words you might trademark in order to secure your retirement, you can have a look through the list of those someone has already beaten you to in a couple of places. First, there's Tess, the US government's Trademark Electronic Search System at

http://www.uspto.gov/main/trademarks.htm

You can also browse a list of internationally recognized trademarks at a site maintained by the International Trademark Association (INTA). (Curiously missing from this list: stealth!) It's at

http://www.inta.org/tmcklst1.htm

Finally, if you'd like to bring yourself completely up-to-date on what the members of the G8 intend to do about climate change, the whole document is at

http://www.fco.gov.uk/Files/kfile/PostG8_Gleneagles_Communique.pdf


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Language Lounge.

Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.