January 30, 2005

Bait and switch

Idiomatic expressions that originate as descriptions of very specific event types, like bucket brigade, are inclined to get extended semantically, so that they can describe situations lacking some of the historically defining details. Recently I came across a dramatic example of semantic extension, buried in the flap about SpongeBob SquarePants, which hit the papers on 1/20/05. The NYT that day (p. A12) reported the following from Paul Batura, assistant to James C. Dobson at Focus on the Family:

"We see the video [a music video in which cartoon characters, among them SpongeBob SquarePants, teach elementary school children about multiculturalism] as an insidious means by which the organization [the We Are Family Foundation] is manipulating and potentially brainwashing kids. It's a classic bait and switch."

First, a few words about bucket brigade (lifted from my 2002 NWAV talk on "Seeds of Variation and Change"), where the historical developments can be seen as incremental moves away from an original event type that is rich in detail.

The original bucket brigade involved chains of people, buckets of water, and putting out fires. Bucket brigade can still describe such events, but the expression now has extended senses denoting emergency situations of all sorts, not necessarily fires; as a result, buckets of water aren't necessarily involved, either. At this point, the semantic extensions go in at least two different directions. The extended sense reported by Webster's New International 3 refers to chains in emergency situations, with humans not necessarily involved: 'any chain (as of persons) acting to meet an emergency'. On the other hand, the Random House Dictionary of the English Language reports an extended sense referring to human action in an emergency, with chains not necessarily involved, as in its cite: "Seeing the two guests of honor bickering, the rest of the group formed a bucket brigade to calm them."

Back to SpongeBob SquarePants. Most of the flap has concerned Dobson's claim that the music video promotes homosexuality. But according to Nile Rodgers, the founder of the foundation, nothing in the video or its accompanying materials refers to sexual orientation, nor does the video mention the "tolerance pledge" (borrowed from the Southern Poverty Law Center) that appears on the foundation's web site; the pledge counsels tolerance for "sexual identity", among a variety of other things.

The Focus on the Family position seems to be that the video is "pro-homosexual" (Dobson's word) because it will lead its young viewers to the website and so to a mention of respect for "sexual identity" (not further explained), a mention that transparently (to Dobson's way of thinking) furthers the homosexual agenda; or perhaps that counseling tolerance in general terms is covert advocacy of homosexuality and therefore reprehensible; or perhaps that the very involvement of SpongeBob SquarePants, who some see as a character of suspect sexuality (I'm not making this up, you know), contaminates the whole video. But these dubious lines of reasoning aren't what I'm interested in here. My interest is in the expression bait and switch as applied the association between the video and the "homosexual agenda". This is a huge extension of the meaning of the expression.

Your classic bait and switch is, in the words of the American Heritage Dictionary 4, "a sales tactic in which a bargain-priced item is used to attract customers who are then encouraged to purchase a more expensive similar item." Batura's use preserves the component of deception, the assertion that one thing is offered (but not specifically for sale) and another provided (but in addition to, rather than instead of, the first), and the presupposition that the thing provided is in some way unsatisfactory (but morally offensive rather than expensive). You can get from AHD4 to Batura, but it's a long trip, and I haven't found any instances of the steps along the way.

My guess is that Batura settled on "bait and switch" as a vivid alternative to "deception" or "hidden agenda", without thinking through the details.

Addendum: When I first posted on this topic to the American Dialect Society mailing list, on 1/23/05, Larry Horn replied to the list, that same day:

That is curious. In recent political contexts, I've more often come across "bait and switch" in op-ed pieces from the left, or at least from those critical of the current administration and its policies. Economist Paul Krugman in particular seems very fond of this turn, as applied especially (but not only) to the handling of Social Security and tax cuts. Nexis turns up 11 hits of "bait and switch"... from Krugman op-ed columns or, in one case, a piece by him for the Magazine... [Larry supplies a few examples here.] But clearly these are all much more conventional applications of the figure than the one involving Messrs. SpongeBob and Batura.
I wonder if there are enough critics of Bush et al. who follow Krugman in this accusation to have inspired Batura to apply the same term for their own ends, whether or not the circumstances justify it.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 30, 2005 01:18 PM