Thursday, 25 April 2013

But thinking makes it so

08:00:00 Posted by Damp incendiary device , , , , , , , , , , 6 comments
Mr. Praline: Now that's what I call a dead parrot.
Owner: No, no.....No, 'e's stunned!
Mr. Praline: STUNNED?!?
Owner: Yeah! You stunned him, just as he was wakin' up! Norwegian Blues stun easily, major.
Mr. Praline: look, mate, I've definitely 'ad enough of this. That parrot is definitely deceased, and when I purchased it not 'alf an hour ago, you assured me that its total lack of movement was due to it bein' tired and shagged out following a prolonged squawk.
Owner: Well, he's...he's, ah...probably pining for the fjords.

Poor Mr Praline.  It's frustrating when somebody misuses language in order to manipulate.

Here is how the US War and National Defence Code describes a weapon of mass destruction:

(1) The term “weapon of mass destruction” means any weapon or device that is intended, or has the capability, to cause death or serious bodily injury to a significant number of people through the release, dissemination, or impact of—
(A) toxic or poisonous chemicals or their precursors;

(B) a disease organism; or

(C) radiation or radioactivity. 
And here is how the FBI (in part) defines the same term for civilian investigations:
(A) any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas—
(i) bomb,

(ii) grenade,

(iii) rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces,

(iv) missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce,

(v) mine, or

(vi) device similar to any of the devices described in the preceding clauses;
Finally, here is how the FBI described the weapons of mass destruction used in the Boston bombings:

low grade explosives that were housed in pressure cookers...The pressure cookers...contained metallic BBs and nails.  Many of the BBs were housed in an adhesive material.  The explosives contained green-coloured hobby fuse.
As a poet I'm a fan of words with multiple meanings.  Take the word mantle.  Here's how the OED defines it:


  • 1 a loose sleeveless cloak or shawl, worn especially by women: she was wrapped tightly in her mantle
  • a covering of a specified sort:the houses were covered with a thick mantle of snow
  • Ornithology a bird’s back, scapulars, and wing coverts, especially when of a distinctive colour: many gulls are all white except for dark grey mantle and wings
  • Zoology (in molluscs, cirripedes, and brachiopods) a fold of skin enclosing the viscera and secreting the shell.
  • 2 an important role or responsibility that passes from one person to another:the second son has now assumed his father’s mantle
    [with allusion to the passing of Elijah's cloak (mantle) to Elisha (2 Kings 2:13)]
  • 3 (also gas mantle) a mesh cover fixed round a gas jet to give an incandescent light when heated.
  • 4 Geology the region of the earth’s interior between the crust and the core, believed to consist of hot, dense silicate rocks (mainly peridotite): magmas erupted at mid-ocean ridges are derived from the upper mantle [as modifier]:mantle rock [mass noun]:the presence of hot mantle leads to melting at the base of the lithosphere
  • the part of another planetary body corresponding to the earth’s mantle:the lunar mantle
Mantle also works as a verb but let's ignore that for now. 
If I describe a mantle's clasp I might be talking about the clasp which holds a cloak together, the manner in which the snow clings to the roof of a building, the dire grip of inherited responsibility or the deadly embrace of a magma eruption.  
If I fancied enrolling a cliched image I could describe the starry mantle above my head.  Shakespeare used this particular image in Hamlet (back when the metaphor was still living):
But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad
Taking another step, I might employ a homophone and allude to a woman's breasts as a mantle, calling to mind breasts that are expansive (they could be used to cover something) and also resembling a mantelpiece. 
By tapping into the varied word banks of my readers I am able to tease subtle nuances from a single word which can affect the perception of a poem.  The variety of definitions for individual words in the English language is one reason why it's such a joy to employ.  But not everybody uses the OED.  Organisations, as we see above, create their own very specific definitions to apply to words which are in common parlance.  

The problem with a multitude of definitions is that the law (where many of these creative descriptions can be found) depends upon understanding of what constitutes a crime.  Beyond the simple edict that it is wrong to harm others, civilians need to be informed about what their government classifies as a crime worthy of punishment.  
The FBI definition includes in its description of WMDs: incendiary devices.  A Molotov Cocktail is an incendiary device.  Here is a video of a child making a torch with alcohol and a glass bottle.  

The FBI definition includes in its description of WMDs: a rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces.  Here is a WikiHow page showing you how to make fuel for your homemade rocket using 2lbs (32 ounces) of propellant.

I'm going to go out on a limb and assume the folks who are involved in the media above haven't been arrested on terrorism charges.  Are they aware that their products could be classified as weapons of mass destruction?  Are they aware that the use of such weapons carries this sentence:
...imprison[ment] for any term of years or for life, and if death results... punish[ment] by death
or imprison[ment] for any term of years or for life.
There is a man currently in prison for six consecutive life terms in Colorado for conspiring to use a plane as a WMD.  He had learned how to fly a WMD but didn't kill anyone personally.  He was in prison when the September 11 attacks took place. The judge appears to have made up their own, personal definition of what constitutes a WMD just for this case.  You begin to see the problem?
Shakespeare enjoyed playing with language.  As Colin pointed out on Monday, if he couldn't find a word that suited him he created a new word.  Many of those new words are in use today.  I like to imagine, however, that Shakespeare would be less impressed with the constant shuffling and variance of definitions which slippery authority figures use to suit their own ends.  When the law is shifting beneath your feet, who's to say which of us would maintain our freedom should the powers that be require a reason to have us disappear?



Ashley R Lister said...

Slippery language - used by slippery people.

Excellent post.


Lisa McFleeca said...

If you quote anymore of my favourite classics, I'm going to have a geek attack. I love the parrot sketch, John Cleese is a force of nature.

Scary how language can be used, misused and abused. However I think I'd rather see someone in prison for conspiring to kill people than being proven successful in the attempt. Those who plan to kill need putting in a special room where they can only hurt themselves.

Unfortunately America like to swathe the truth in that much nonsense that you can't tell if he really was conspiring to hurt people or if he was just some guy who learnt to fly a plane and happened to say on twitter he'd like to fly it into his old work because they are a bunch of bastards. So much hype over there it's hard to tell sometimes where they get it write and where they get it wrong...

Loved the post
L xx

Anonymous said...

Great post Vicky.

I'm just glad there will always be poets in the world to keep word meanings true. We've being spun out of control these last few years.


Colin Davies said...

Love the post, it's important to make sure the lawmakers are using truth to write their definitions. It's is equally important that the media follows suit.

It's not that words themselves need saving from moving lines of definition, it trying to the watchmen to be very rigid in its delivery of them.

These examples, and some of the wording is recent policies goes to show that those in power are becoming more and more removed from the people they are supposed to represent and protect.

If the poets can pull apart a legal argument because the definitions is absurd, then surely a guilty man will escape punishment because of a clever lawyer who will rip apart such poorly written and ill thought out descriptions.

Really loved this post. Thank you

vicky ellis said...

If a poet writes'her words were a loaded gun which she used to murder her lover' it's creativity. When a judge says the same thing and passes sentence it's terrifying. Due to the significance of legal precedent, judges do have the power to shift the boundaries of language in a dangerous directions. Their words are speech acts in that they have physical repercussions. It's a hell of a lot of power we give them.

Colin Davies said...

I couldn't agree with you more on that last point.