Everyday Semiotics

Saturday, January 06, 2007


Today's paper had a letter that seemed to remind me of something I've always meant to blog about but never realized: the meme "support our troops."
It is useful to read an occasional letter from the dwindling handful of war supporters (William Sillin, Dec. 16), to realize how shallow is their use of the term "support the troops."
In that writer's view, support takes the form of thanking the troops and contributing to charities which help them. Nothing is ever said of "support" in terms of increased taxes to pay for the war, a draft to provide adequate numbers of military personnel, oversight of military contractors, willingness to acknowledge and treat both physical and mental health impacts of war, and electing wise leaders who listen to experts and wage war only as a last resort.
Rutherford H. Platt
It is indeed very useful to chart how many different things this grouping of three words, "support our troops," can mean.

The fad seems to have died down lately, but a year or two ago you could pick up, from any gas station counter, one of those magnetic yellow ribbons. They all were inscribed, "Support our troops." This began as a way to wear your patriotism on your sleeve, er, car. Quickly the brand branched out to include American flag ribbons.

It was at this point still possible to use "Support our troops" as a synonym for "Don't criticize the War on Terror, lest you give comfort to the enemy." To say "support our troops" was then to not so tacitly approve of the Bush administration's foreign policy.

Curiously -- but appropriately -- the simple loop of the ribbon recalls that of the red AIDS ribbon, which symbolizes mourning for lives lost but also a determination to stop the thing responsible. I wonder: could the yellow ribbon be re-appropriated (like the words "queer" and "gay" and now "bitch" have been re-appropriated) to stand for mourning the war's dead and the determination to end the bloodshed?

The answer is it already does, or at least did. Once upon a time a yellow ribbon tied to a telephone pole or a porch pillar symbolized a hortatory "Bring the boys back home." Only for a brief time in the 21st century did it mean "Keep the boys over there, and heap on the praise."

Now I don't know what it means. The phrase "Support our troops," as Mr. Platt points out, certainly doesn't seem have any substance left to it. It has been deflated. The ribbon has come unpinned.


Friday, January 05, 2007


Snip from a fun interview with Ben Schott, author of the delightful Schott's Miscellany and other eponymous titles:
What's increasingly interesting about modern media is its filters: if you actually look at websites, technology from TiVo to iPods to blogs, it's all about filter. What we mean when we say we like a blog or we like a website is that we like somebody's filter. And we have several filters for different things. Of course our friends are filters. Word of mouth is the ultimate filter.
The oldest one in the semiotician's book is that the meaning of any given is exclusionary. That is, a word or a symbol or a picture or a sound means one thing precisely because it doesn't mean something else.

For so long, information has had to be organized in files -- from the manilla envelope to the computerized folder. Even the basic information element, the thing computer programs from word processors to Internet browsers to MIDI composers use is called a file.

But more and more, systems are being used that forget organization and partitioning in favor of filtering, as Mr. Schott points out. Gmail proscribes, "Search, don't sort." YouTube is minimally browseable; it would much rather have you click the links that so many others have clicked before you. Keywords and their repetition is the new basis of information organization.

What significance might this have for semiotics? If the paradigm of the file is becoming antiquated, then what does that mean for différence, the partitioning of semes, the system of creating meanings by separating them from one another?

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Becky Awards

The relentless and very often tiresome harping on initially interesting topics at Language Log has lately lead me to read the blog less faithfully than I used to (and how charmed I was after first reading about it in the NYT). One of its language mavens nonetheless caught my attention today by the best means possible: NPR. There was a segment on "Fresh Air" announcing the Beckys, Language Log's own version, with sneering added, of the Ig Nobel.

The awards went to a slate of half-assed scientific research done on language as it related to gender difference, and to the sensationalistic, shallow media coverage this research has received -- all items they've harped on recently.

OK, so it's very noble and enterprising of them to point out the poppycock in these cases. But me in my simplicity, I delighted much more in learning the tale behind the name of the award, and then following my own semantic train tracks away from the radio broadcast.

The Beckys are named for Johannes Goropius Becanus, a quack from 16th-century Antwerp, who theorized that Adam and Eve spoke Flemmish. From Becanus' middle name, Gottfried Leibniz coined the term goropizer, for someone who makes up cockamamie etymologies for words.

(Tangentially, the word reminded me of one that's been stuck in my head like a despicable pop tune these last few days: gourmandizer, one prone to overeating or eating messily. Which recalled to my mind CBGB, the iconic New York punk club, recently closed, whose subacronym, OMFUG, stands for Other Music For Uplifting Gourmandizers. [CBGB stands for Country Bluegrass Blues.])

Coming off the tangent, I was reminded by goropizer of another NPR broadcast months ago. It was "Whadaya Know," or that other, similarly obnoxious Sunday game/variety show. The panel of celebrity contestants were playing a game that may well have been called Goropizing. Each was given an obscure word and asked to define it. Three of them were BSing; one gave a real definition. The strangest of the bunch, and therefore the one with the real definition attached, was deipnosophist, one who excells at making dinner conversation. Not a word I use every day, but one I'm proud to know.

World Wide Words explains it is derived from two Greek words (but really, what English word isn't?), "deipnon, the chief meal or dinner, and sophistes, a master of his craft, a clever or wise man." Interesting, because sophist in modern times has a derogatory hue. We usually think of a sophist as someone who is adept at disguising counterfactual or immoral arguments in shrouds of apparent reason or morality, like Glaucon in Plato's Republic or Belial in Paradise Lost.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007


NPR's "Talk of the Nation" today was essentially a meditation on a neologism that, once I'd heard it, I liked quite a lot. The ideagora is the ubernet, the Web/ blogosphere/ Blackberryscape/ cellphonebrowserverse, a series of tubes unlike any we've imagined hitherto. But of course whenever we talk about any of these things, we're really talking about the people inputting and outputting with their assistance.

In the ideagora, research and development is redefined. The realization of the ideagora is a moving beyond cellular, corporate innovation and off into the real of the viral, the spontaneous, the unexpected, perhaps even the previously thought impossible. It's a function of wikinomics (another neologism -- less pleasing to my ear, simply because "wiki" always sounded a bit off to me [But don't get me wrong -- I love wikis as a thing.]), the collaborative, shared economy where knowledge as raw material is inexhaustible and also free.

I say "ideagora" and "wikinomics" are neologisms; but really they're just portmanteau words. The former is a combination of "idea" and agora, the ancient Greek word for marketplace, at least so far as that marketplace is also a sort of forum in the classical sence. The later is a portmanteau born of a neologism (wiki, a foreshortening of Wiki Wiki Web, the Hawaiian-influenced name given by Ward Cunningham in 1994 to the very first wiki softwear) and one of the oldest words there is (economics, which in the originary Greek oikonomia meant management of one's home).

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