May 05, 2005

Why is "compound" code for "cult"?

In an earlier post, I offered some statistical evidence that Mark Steyn was right when he wrote that "the [New York] Times seems to use the term [compound] as universally accepted shorthand for 'wacky cult'". Lane Greene suggested by email that other uses, like "Kennedy compound", may be similar sorts of writerly sneers:

... I more or less  intuitively agreed with Steyn's thrust when I first read it - "compound" seems to imply a certain sneering at someone different.

But then I thought of "Kennedy compound". Have you ever noticed it's always the "Kennedy compound"? That's journalese for "these rich jerks have so much money they can just do whatever they want, including perhaps raping a girl here and there." [...]

Belonging to rich people who don't have particularly bizarre religious beliefs, the Kennedys' home is surely more like an "estate". So maybe the common denominator in "compound" is sneering by the person writing it.

I get the same feeling that Lane does about "Kennedy compound", but I'd go back one step further.

It seems to me that all the common uses of compound for "residential complex" -- oriental trading post, military compound, diplomatic compound, rich folk's compound, family compound in Africa, and so on -- have in common the idea of a protected area in the middle of an excluded and generally hostile world.

In the case of the military and the diplomats, we accept that they have conventional reasons to set themselves apart and to shut out those outside. Likewise, I guess, for a family in a place like Nigeria, where we accept that protective exclusion is also conventional and reasonable.

In the case of the Kennedys and the cults, the motives for exclusion are less conventional and more a matter of a choice that the compound owners have made. Also, we ourselves are among those being excluded. So the use of the world "compound" in those cases evokes an "us" vs. "them" divison, set up by the compound owners as "them" on the inside, with the writer and the reader as "us" on the outside. In effect, they're the Europeans and we're the natives.

At that point we can ask why the writer chose a word with that effect, and there's where the sneering comes in, I think.

There is probably also a certain amount of collocational conventionality associated with such phrases, as these Google counts suggest:



"Kennedy __" Hyannisport
"Bush __" Kennebunkport
"Gates __" Seattle
"Jackson __" Neverland

I suspect that Bill Gates is at least as resented as the Kennedys are, and he is certainly the object of much more widespread and active sneering these days. And I'm sure that his place in Seattle is just as well protected from intrusion as the Kennedys' place in Hyannisport is. Still, Gates' compound/estate ratio is much more favorable.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 5, 2005 11:06 AM