March 01, 2006

The revolving door has my head spinning

Speaking of the transformation of Senator John Thune (Rep., S. Dakota) from K Street lobbyist to senator, Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the 2/28/2006 New York Times, “It might be said that John Thune went through the revolving door – backward… Mr. Thune’s experience has put a spotlight on what some experts call ‘the reverse revolving door.’”

It’s easy to see what Ms. Stolberg intends by the “reverse revolving door” because we’re familiar with the revolving door as a characterization of the frequent passage from government official to lobbyist. What’s less apparent is why the trope works in the first place. It’s in the essence of a revolving door to permit simultaneous traffic in both directions. So what on earth could a reverse revolving door be? (Switching from clockwise to counter-clockwise might be momentarily off-putting, but it wouldn’t affect the direction(s) of traffic flow.) Once we notice the non-fit of visual image to intended meaning, it’s hard to fathom how the expression revolving door ever got started as a way to denote the one-way traffic from officialdom to K Street. It looks like this may be just another of those colorful tropes in which the physical image doesn’t match the intended concept, like falling between the cracks or back to back. Does anyone or anything normally follow another of the same kind facing backwards? And even if so, what about the more recent back to back to back (126,000 Google hits)? Visualize that, if you can.

We’re also familiar with tropes that break loose from originally sound moorings. And perhaps we can think of them as being related to those just considered – ones that have initially shaky physical foundations, like the revolving door. My favorite involves the French expressions faire long feu and ne pas faire long feu, both of which mean the same thing ‘to not last, to fizzle out’. The story goes that the original expression was faire long feu ‘burn for a long time’ and evoked a fuse that burns slowly and goes out before igniting the payload. But the image apparently switched, for some, from the defective fuse to the non-occurrence of the explosion, leading to the introduction of the negation. The non-negated, and presumably earlier (and “correct”), version retains about a seven to one advantage in Google hits.

The (ne pas) faire long feu phenomenon seems related in turn to the Mondegreen/nominal egg phenomenon (and laid him on the green misheard as and Lady Mondegreen; an arm and a leg misheard as a nominal egg), in which a bit of a lyric or other familiar phrase is given a new parse. [These reshapings of familiar words and phrases have come to be called "eggcorns", and have their own on-line database and wikipedia entry.] My personal favorite is something I heard a caller to a talk show say, “I’m an utter incomplete fool. I mean – I’m not even a complete fool!” I wouldn’t have known how the speaker intended the first sentences to be parsed if she hadn’t uttered the second one.

What this rambling may add up to, if anything, is that l’arbitraire du signe and the iconicity principles are always present and always working at cross purposes. To put it briefly, if unscientifically, it’s as if the signs are always trying to get more arbitrary and the people are always trying to make them less so.

Posted by Paul Kay at March 1, 2006 06:25 AM