Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Ubiquitous Metonymy (or, shut up and find a new way to talk about me!!)

Metonymy (defined here) is a useful and sometimes lovely tool in our language. Because of it, we have these lines from Robin Hood (forever etched in my memory by the LP of the movie we absolutely wore out as children): "Traitor to the crown?!! That crown belongs to King Richard!" In these two sentences, crown moves from a metonymic reference to royalty (Prince John at the time) to a literal reference to the crown that "keeps slipping down around that pointed head." Metonymy allows us to refer to President Bush's administration as The White House. Such references to the domicile on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue make sense to us in a kind of shorthand: we automatically register that a sentence talking about "The White House's revised plan for an economic bailout" isn't talking about the house at all.

So, yeah, metonymy's a good thing. I love it. I love that Fleet Street still stands for the London press, even though the actual street is mainly shops now, and the papers do their printing elsewhere. I love that the term Wall Street makes it easy for us to refer to our financial system in such an efficient way. English is cool like that.

But...(and you knew a but was coming!) since when did the American people become Main Street? Oh, yeah, I'm sure it was cute the first fifty or sixty times folks made this reference. I'm sure its originators were thinking, "Look, repetition is cool: I repeat the word street, I get everyone's attention. I reference a street that invokes small-town America and baseball and apple pie, ZING! Now they're listening." Of course, one has to think that if a politician or pundit had made this choice back in the Ozzie and Harriet days, the street would have been Maple or Elm, but we have Rod Serling and Wes Craven to thank for Main Street's making the cut.

So somebody started saying it. Obama may have been the first, but who knows? Anyway, he started saying it. And then McCain started saying it. And then every single newscaster on the planet started saying it. And after everybody started saying it, something fundamentally changed about what Main Street was, and is, and evermore shall be. It went from somebody's cutesy idea of a soundbite-worthy metaphor to straight-up metonymy, a convenient shorthand for middle-class America that has become about as common as, well, apple pie.

It doesn't get on my nerves because it's stupid, though it is. I mean, if we're going to be reduced to a street name, it might as well be a name that makes sense. Isn't Main Street usually comprised of businesses, restaurants, the post office, etc.? The folks using this shorthand aren't talking about small-town business, but about our houses, our bank accounts. We are Main Street.

Nope. I'm not reacting to the stupidity of it, but the ubiquity. We are lazy creatures. Blessed with the vast resources of our amazing English language, we consign ourselves to the vapid metaphors someone else impressed us with a few days ago. Makes me think of Jim Carrey's line from Dumb and Dumber, when the waitress defines the soup du jour as "the soup of the day": "That sounds good. I'll have that." It's kind of like plagiarism, isn't it? I mean, I just don't understand why EVERYBODY has to say the same thing in the same way! Do reporters and politicians repeat these buzzwords and catchphrases because they want us to catch something, or are have they themselves been overtaken by the viral words that latch on to those with the weak immune system of poor vocabulary?

I'm not saying I'm immune by any stretch of the imagination--my vocabulary is rather limited, my metaphors often threadbare. In fact, I completely understand the malady. Several regrettable words remain so ingrained in my speech that I may be attempting to expunge them for the rest of my life: like (for as if), cool, totally, etc. Fortunately, I totally let go of proverbial like way before it stopped being cool to everyone else.

But I don't make my living talking to thinking adults. My every word is not judged, except by God and maybe the occasional reader of this blog (and you're all occasional readers now that I never post!) The press, the pundits, the future President (whoever he may be)--all these folks are smart enough to figure out how to kill the overkill and at least move us to MLK Boulevard, or the 'burbs. Or better yet, lose the metonymy and just call us who we are: Americans, taxpayers, voters, PEOPLE.