June 10, 2006

Extorting Barry

If you've been following the controversy over Barry Bonds' alleged steroid use, you may have heard of Kimberly Bell, the ballplayer's ex-girlfriend. She provided damaging testimony against Bonds in front of a federal grand jury investigating BALCO (the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, which supposedly supplied Bonds and other athletes with performance-enhancing drugs). Bell's leaked testimony was a crucial component in Game of Shadows, the book that blew the lid off the BALCO/Bonds story. Now, as the Feds line up new charges against Bonds, Bell is being told by federal investigators not to cooperate with Major League Baseball's own steroid investigation. Bonds' lawyer, Michael Rains, suggested to the AP that this is being done because Bell lacks credibility:

"Maybe they realize when Kim Bell starts answering questions, it's gonna become clear that she first tried to extort Barry for money, that she changed her stories about various things and has changed it since then and will change it again," Rains said.

This curious phrasing isn't new for Rains. Back in March, when excerpts from Game of Shadows were first published in Sports Illustrated, Rains released a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle, which read in part:

We know and understand that one of the most prominent sources is a woman who previously attempted to extort Barry for money.

This use of extort was new to me — "extort money from Barry" sounds much more natural than "extort Barry for money." And every dictionary I checked implies only "extort (something) from (someone)" as a possibility, not "extort (someone) for (something)." But an online search finds that Rains' usage is not at all idiosyncratic. (Rule #1 of Googlinguistics: Nothing is idiosyncratic.) For instance, here's a quote from boxer Jose Antonio Rivera talking about a potential title fight against Oscar De La Hoya:

"And believe me, if Don King gives me $2 million to fight him, I'm not going to complain and at the last minute try to extort him for $6 million more." (Worcester Telegram, May 8, 2006)

As it turns out, there's been a lot of talk about extortion lately, thanks to a new video game based on the Godfather movies. Here are some excerpts from reviews of the game:

Beyond plot-based missions, players can engage in multiple side jobs. Rob the local bank and rush to your safehouse before the cops catch you, extort businesses for money, or take out Corleone enemies. (USA Today, Mar. 20, 2006)

You can build up your own crime empire by moving from shop to shop and extorting the owners for 'protection' money and running illegal rackets for extra cash. (Kikizo Games, Mar. 24, 2006)

Oftentimes I'd wander into a Barber's Shop and he'd run off scared, thinking I was going to try to extort him for money. (GameSpot, Apr. 1, 2006)

For instance, if you choose to extort bakeries for protection money, you'll notice that every bakery has the same layout and character models inside. (Hartford Advocate, May 11, 2006)

Other examples lack the "for NP" complement but still take an object denoting the person or establishment from whom money is extracted, rather than the money itself:

You can go in to shops and extort them look about for rackets and then take them. (GameSpot, Apr. 16, 2006)

Additionally, there are tons of things to do, from extorting businesses to taking over the city, which means you'll definitely get your money's worth. (Hartford Advocate, May 11, 2006)

Independently of the Corleone missions, you have to extort businesses, take over rackets and generally cause mayhem throughout the city. (Mail & Guardian, May 12, 2006)

It's great fun to pretend to be a mobster, to wield deadly weapons, and to accumulate money, power, and respect by extorting businesses, carrying out contract hits, bribing cops, and fighting the occasional mob war. (Slate, June 1, 2006)

So it seems that the range of possible "frames" for the verb extort has been expanding. The previous standard usage put extort in a verb class that Beth Levin calls the "STEAL verbs," i.e.:

abduct cadge capture confiscate cop emancipate embezzle exorcise extort extract filch flog grab impound kidnap liberate lift nab pilfer pinch pirate plagiarize purloin reclaim recover redeem regain repossess rescue retrieve rustle seize smuggle snatch sneak sponge steal swipe take thieve wangle weasel winkle withdraw wrest

All of these verbs can appear in a frame that we can notate as "NPa V NPb from NPc," where NPa is the taker, NPb is the thing taken, and NPc is the victim of the taking:

The con artist extorted/extracted/snatched/stole/took $1,000 from me.

Note, however, that one common verb of this class, take, has developed another colloquial sense, which allows the frame "NPa V NPc for NPb." Here the object immediately after the verb denotes the victim and the object after for denotes the thing taken, such as money:

The con artist took me for $1,000.

The OED lists this as sense 8c of take ("To swindle, cheat, or deprive of money by extortion. Freq. const. for") and gives these citations that fit the frame:

1930 D. HAMMETT Dain Curse xii. 122 They landed Mrs Rodman... They took her for one of her apartment buildings.
1968 'L. MARSHALL' Blood on Blotter xxvii. 183 'How much did you take him for?' 'Slade? Plenty.'
1970 Washington Post 30 Sept. B12/4 It looks to me like yo're fixin' to git took for the dollar an' thirty cents, Shuffy.
1982 'E. LATHEN' Green grow Dollars xiv. 112 'I told Mary to take them for every penny she could get,' he said stoutly.

A few other colloquial verbs also work in this frame, such as soak. Here are more OED cites (under sense 7f):

1915 WODEHOUSE Something Fresh ii. 37 Especially after poor old Percy had just got soaked for such a pile of money.
1966 'L. LANE' ABZ of Scouse 101 Can I soak yer fer a coupler bob?
1977 Time 21 Nov. 59/2 Then add the investment in sophisticated equipment: a single stainless-steel 1,000-gal. vat can soak the vintner for some $6,000.

And if we consider phrasal verbs, then we can add "shake (someone) down for (money)" and "hit (someone) up for (money)" to the list. (Both expressions are American slang of early 20th-century vintage.) Note that soak, shake down, and hit up don't allow the traditional frame for "STEAL verbs," however:

* The con artist soaked $1,000 from me.
* The con artist shook $1,000 down from me.
* The con artist hit $1,000 up from me.

Those verbs aren't as flexible as take, which can fit both the "NPa V NPb from NPc" frame and the "NPa V NPc for NPb" frame. And now extort has joined take in that select class. Furthermore, we can see that the new sense of extort, like take, can have a verbal complement with just one object, denoting the victim (NPa V NPc):

The con artist took me.
The con artist extorted me.

This variant might be more acceptable to some speakers in the passive voice:

I got taken (by someone).
I was extorted (by someone).

Without the "for NP" complement, take and extort now resemble what Levin classifies as the "CHEAT verbs" (e.g., bilk, cheat, con, defraud, fleece, rob, strip, swindle). The CHEAT verbs, however, can appear in a fuller frame "NPa V NPc (out) of NPb," while take cannot. Extort, gregarious word that it is, seems like it could join this verb class too:

The con artist cheated/conned/fleeced/swindled me out of $1,000.
* The con artist took me out of $1,000.
? The con artist extorted me out of $1,000.

Interestingly enough, after investigating all of this, I don't think Rains' use of extort sounds so peculiar after all! My tolerance level has been raised — but only in terms of word usage. I'm still not buying Rains' effort to discredit the most damaging witness against his client.

[Nothing new under the sun... A check of the newspaper databases finds examples of the Rainsian construction back to the '70s at least:

New York Times, July 29, 1971, p. 39
He said that bribes of about 5 per cent might be paid for a $50,000 loan. Asked if that was the going rate, he replied: "Not necessarily, some would extort you for 10 per cent or more."

Washington Post, Nov. 15, 1975, p. A16
Three Northern Virgina men convicted last month of extorting a former business associate at gunpoint were sentenced yesterday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria to prison terms of varying lengths.

New York Times, Dec. 18, 1977, p. 55
Many storeowners and restaurateurs have been allegedly extorted for money or free meals over the past few years by members of the Ghost Shadows, White Eagles and Flying Dragons youth gangs.

[Mark Liberman offers another interpretation:

My first reaction to this usage of "extort" was that it was a lawyer's substitution for "blackmail", where "blackmail for " seems like a standard usage. At least, it's normal for the direct object to be the person being threatened.
But what's interesting about this use, I think, is the non-specific "for money". I'd expect say "blackmail (or take or etc.) for ten thousand dollars". It's a sort of "cognate prepositional phrase", like the (semantically) cognate objects in "cost money" or "owe money".

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at June 10, 2006 01:29 AM