April 25, 2006

Straw creatures great and small

Apparently the substitution of "straw dog" for "straw man", discussed here a few weeks ago by Ben Zimmer, has become pretty common. According to a recent post by Kate Trgovac at My Name is Kate.ca,

In the last two weeks, I've been in a number of meetings at work where the phrase "straw dog" has been used. As in, "I'm putting this up on the whiteboard as a straw dog. I'd like your feedback."

Kate tracked down Ben's post, and also a post by Jon at Sprachgefühl, who observes that this malapropism for "straw man" has made it into the Urban Dictionary, that reliably unreliable compendium of lexicographic befuddlement.

The use that Kate cites is not exactly covered by the current entries in more serious dictionaries for "straw man", however. The AHD gives these glosses:

1. A person who is set up as cover or a front for a questionable enterprise. 2. An argument or opponent set up so as to be easily refuted or defeated. 3. A bundle of straw made into the likeness of a man and often used as a scarecrow.

But over the past 30 years or so, "straw man" has acquired a new meaning: a tentative or rough-draft proposal, put forward to begin the process of discussion and consultation that will lead to a final version. The AHD's sense 2 ("An argument or opponent set up so as to be easily refuted or defeated") suggests a rhetorical trick, but this new "rough draft" sense refers to an honest and necessary stage of the development process. According to the Wikipedia entry,

A "straw-man proposal" is a simple draft proposal intended to generate discussion of its disadvantages and to provoke the generation of new and better proposals. As the document is revised, it may be given other edition names such as "stone-man", "iron-man", and so on, etc.

The succession of names comes from the requirements document for the programming language Ada. The various stages being Strawman, Woodman, Tinman and Ironman. Later another Ada document, coined the following sequence of men: Sandman, Pebbleman and Stoneman.

Presumably this rough-draft sense of "straw man" was influenced by the term straw vote (or straw poll or straw ballot), which the AHD defines as

An unofficial vote or poll indicating the trend of opinion on a candidate or issue.

In committee work, a "straw vote" is useful to get an idea of how close to consensus the group is, which alternatives have enough support to be worth considering further, and so on. A "straw man proposal" plays an analogous role in helping the members of a group to clarify their ideas and reach a consensus.

As Ben Zimmer explained, the "straw dog" malapropism for "straw man" is primed by the (somewhat enigmatic) title of Sam Peckinpah's 1971 movie Straw Dogs. (If you're interested in the background, the commenters at Language Hat followed up, sinologically speaking, on Ben's discussion of Peckinpah's reference to Lao Tzu.)

Ben suggested that phrases such as "that dog won't hunt" might also be involved in Senator Gregg's statement that "I think that's a straw dog, to be very honest with you, this argument of amnesty". I'd expect that the idiom "stalking horse" would lead to the blend "straw horse" as well, and I'd be right -- a Google search turns up several examples in serious discourse, for example:

(link) This is a straw horse sort of argument. Fundamentally, it suggests the hiring process is a one-way street, and that the applicant has power. In reality, the hiring process is a two way street, involving discrimination on the part of both actors.
(link) I expected an analysis of the difficulties of teaching from a feminist standpoint within the current cultural climate of neo-conservatism and feminist backlash. Instead, I believe Whisnant's article contributes to that trying environment. Whisnant makes a straw horse of all feminisms but her own, lumping together groups as diverse as performativity theorists and liberal feminists, who have defined themselves in part in distinction from one another, and linking both/all with precisely the appropriative corporate tactics they criticize.
(link) Turkewitz complains about 'the false premise underlying the basic anti-copyright position [...] In this formulation, the "public's" interest is exclusively defined as the ability to get copyrighted materials as cheaply as possible, with free obviously being the best (since it is the cheapest) option.' However, this complaint is something of a straw horse.

And of course, if you've got a straw horse, someone is sure to beat it:

(link) Those who keep saying that there is no way of distinguishing between not controlling Ramallah and not controlling Tel Aviv are beating a straw horse.
(link) Not to beat a straw horse, but Rudy & Keith note that "drug administration, gene manipulations or brain lesions could all alter the manner in which the rat contacts the relevant features in the environment rather than the neural mechanisms involved in learning," an opinion echoed by Cain.

Note that all of these malaprops are in formal academic discourse: we intellectuals should not be too quick to throw stones at politicians who produce a novel idiom blend from time to time.

Generalizing from all these straw creatures, the word straw itself has come to mean something like "provisional, put forward for discussion". Examples:

(link) Step 1 of the Management Action Process is the creation of your straw draft MAP Document while step 5 of the Process is the creation of your complete MAP Document based upon your Bottom Up Program Review.
(link) This straw proposal is made by the Office of Clean Energy and has not been reviewed or approved by the Board, the Board President or the Chief of Staff.
(link) The IMO’s approach is to fully stakeholder the straw-plan for market evolution to ensure that the needs and desires of market participants and other stakeholders are known and considered.
(link) The following column of information was created by Turnitin.com to show the attributions for the straw document created to facilitate the development of the UNT academic plan.

[ Here's the OED's citation history for the phrase "straw man":

1594 T. B. La Primaud. Fr. Acad. II. 567 A scarre-crowe to make them afraide, as wee vse to deale with little children and with birdes by puppets and *strawe-men.
1890 FRAZER Golden Bough II. 247 Sometimes a straw man was burned in the ‘hut’.
1896 L. T. HOBHOUSE Theory of Knowl. 59 The straw man was easily enough knocked over by the critic who set him up.
1934 A. WOOLLCOTT While Rome Burns 76, I have often challenged one of these straw-man authorities.
1946 KOESTLER Thieves in Night 328 The authorities..only got the Rumanian captain and his crew, who couldn't give away much as all their dealings had been with straw men under assumed names.
1981 ‘M. HEBDEN’ Pel is Puzzled xviii. 180 He seemed active enough, but there seemed an awful lot lacking in him... Was he really just a straw man?

And for "straw vote/poll/ballot":

1932 C. E. ROBINSON Straw Votes iv. 52 The newspaper or magazine conducting a *straw poll by the ballot-in-the-paper method prints a straw ballot in the publication for a certain period of time before an election.
1944 Chicago Tribune 26 Oct. 12/2 (heading). New deal area lifts F.D.R. in N.Y. straw poll.
1958 Spectator 6 June 722/1 In my own straw poll I found two electors who were going to vote Liberal for the first time.
1978 Nature 6 Apr. 484/3 A straw poll taken three weeks ago at a meeting of faculty professors..voted 23 to 3 against approving the proposal.

There are no straw dogs or straw horses in the OED. Yet.]

[John Cowan points out that

The metaphor in "straw poll" is derived from "straw in the wind"; you can tell which way the wind blows by watching the movement of straws.

As for "strawman", I used to correct it to "trial balloon", which is a perfectly good expression for what is usually meant by "strawman" nowadays -- but I've given up.

And in a demonstration of the prophylactic power of metaphor, no one seems to have been tempted to use the blend "straw balloon". ]

[Grant Barrett writes:

There's one more connotation of "straw" which seems to stem directly from "straw man" sense 1 in AHD4. It's something like "false, questionable, fraudulent."

These two cites are examples: ( straw sale) ( straw contribution).


Posted by Mark Liberman at April 25, 2006 08:19 AM