The Critics Respond, Part Twenty-Seven

paddles

NO, ALEX! IT IS YOU WHO IS WRONG ABOUT PADDLES!

That, however, is not why I’ve chosen to feature this comment in “The Critics Respond” this week. It was the amateur semanticist within me, not the “professional” racer, who demanded that I use Mr. Antonoglou’s post as an example of how words can both lose and gain meaning when people are sloppy about understanding what they’ve read.

Also, I FB stalked the guy and came upon a really scary picture. Click the jump to see it.


trackday

Alex is either a 599 Fiorano owner or someone who borrows one a lot — I don’t know enough Greek to tell you which. He took the above photo at a “Ferrari trackday”. Is that an F40 almost getting centerpunched? Doesn’t look good, whatever it is.

In any event, Alex writes in response to yesterday’s 488GTB article and tells me that, with shift paddles fixed to the steering wheel, “You can apply lock and still change gear as you always know where the paddles are.” Putting aside the shuffle-steering-vs.-formula-car-hand-position debate for a moment, what does he mean, “apply lock”?

That phrase started appearing in English car magazines a couple of decades back, and far as I can tell, here’s the etymology of it. It began with the phrase “opposite lock”, which meant that you were “steering into the skid” so far that you turned the wheel until it hit the stop, or “lock”, at the end of its travel. Most car magazines publish “Turns, lock to lock,” to denote how many times you can turn the wheel. This was a big deal back when cars didn’t have power steering and ratios were very slow. A car with five turns lock to lock would be easy to park but tiring on the freeway.

It’s considered a big deal in English magazines to “give it oppo” because that is indicative of a major drift. At some point the phrase “dab of oppo” appeared, meaning a little bit of opposite lock. That’s like being a little bit pregnant — either you’re at the opposite lock or you aren’t — but it didn’t stop people from using the phrase, both seriously and playfully.

Now we have the idea of “winding on lock”, which is when you, um, apply steering that does not reach the lock. And “unwinding lock” which is the opposite. By 2010 or so, “lock” had become a synonym for “steering”, which is how Alex uses the word. He’s not a native English speaker, so I have no beef with him simply repeating what he’s read elsewhere. My problem is with the writers who should know better.

Hear me now and believe me later: The joy, the gift, the wonder of the English language is in its abundance of potential meaning, its proliferation of available words. It’s a language that has both “beautiful” and “gorgeous” in its quiver, allowing a skilled writer to make effective use of the difference between those words. It has “amazing” and “astounding” and “terrific” and woe be to the person who thinks they are synonyms.

As we fold, spindle, and mutilate our mother tongue, all the better to make it fit the available communication bandwidths, both electromagnetic and intellectual, in our low-function society, we are losing meaning. It is slipping away from us and it will not easily return. This is not a process we can arrest but we can retard it a bit by becoming stewards of meaning within our own writing.

When you write “amazing” in place of “good”, you are doing to the language what the overuse of antibiotics in chicken farms does to bacterial resistance in hospitals: you’re pumping up the volume for short-term gain and something is being lost in exchange. When you indulge in the perpetual outrage machine that characterizes modern political discourse and you permit that machine to color your discourse with words like “racist”, “fascist”, “communist”, you bleach the meaning from those words. The day will come when you really need those ideas and concepts and you will find that we’ll all built up an immunity to them from overexposure.

I will do my part. I will not write “wonderful” unless the object of my adjective truly engenders wonder. I will not write “amazing” unless I am honestly amazed. And I will not be doing anything with “lock” except reaching it during an episode of parallel parking. I promise.

31 Replies to “The Critics Respond, Part Twenty-Seven”

  1. DeadWeight

    “As we fold, spindle, and mutilate our mother tongue, all the better to make it fit the available communication bandwidths, both electromagnetic and intellectual, in our low-function society, we are losing meaning. It is slipping away from us and it will not easily return. This is not a process we can arrest but we can retard it a bit by becoming stewards of meaning within our own writing.”

    Urban dictionary, yo.

    Reply
  2. Ark-med

    “Is our language capable, English this is, is it capable of sustaining demagoguery?
    “If Hitler had been English would we, under similar circumstances have been moved, charged up, fired by his inflammatory speeches, or should we have laughed? Er, er, er, is English too ironic a language to support Hitlerian styles, would his language simply have, have rung false in our ears?”
    – A Bit of Fry and Laurie

    Reply
  3. jstyer

    An unlikely, but surprisingly well said, example of this is the Guy Martin bit on the word “unbelievable” in TT: Closer to the Edge.

    I laugh out loud (LOL?) every time.

    Reply
  4. jz78817

    English is such a mish-mash, bastard child of a language that I don’t understand why anyone cares about the “purity” of it.

    “As we fold, spindle, and mutilate our mother tongue, all the better to make it fit the available communication bandwidths, both electromagnetic and intellectual, in our low-function society, we are losing meaning.”

    no, we are changing meaning. You just don’t want to have to keep up.

    Reply
    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      Changing the meaning of every available word to make it mean either “amazing!” or “racist!” is not a change. It is a degradation.

      Reply
    • Ronnie Schreiber

      English is indeed a polyglot, with at least five parent languages. While that makes learning spelling a bit of a chore, it also gives English great nuance and precision. That makes it a powerful language because words mean precisely what they mean. What you’re advocating is the opposite of using that power.

      I believe Orwell taught us the danger of redefining words.

      Another Englishman, F.L. Lucas, said, about Chamberlain’s Munich agreement, “if it were not ghastly, it would be grotesque.” Now that’s a skilled writer.

      Reply
  5. Domestic Hearse

    I’ll grant that auto enthusiasts, hobbyists, and dare I say, writers are corrupting the English language, but there is no group of people doing more damage to our Anglo-Frisian dialect than corporate buzzword speakers.

    Reply
  6. AoLetsGo

    This is what 90% of human conversation is coming to:
    How are you – Good
    What’s new – Nothing
    Well have FUN

    Reply
    • jz78817

      so what? I’m not a talkative person. If I have something to say, I’ll say it if asked to. But I don’t flap my fucking gums just because I think the air has to be filled with the noise of my voice. I’m not going to accommodate your need to tell me every bit of minutiae you’ve experienced over the past 15 minutes.

      People who can’t tell when the conversation is over piss me off to no end. just shut the fuck up and go away already.

      Reply
      • Niclas

        I’ve probably used “a dab of oppo” interchangeably with countersteer at some point. I’ll use the fact that English is not my first, or even my second language, as an excuse. Steering into the slide or countersteer still sounds more intuitive. “Applying lock” as a synonym for steering is inane.

        Situations where you need to shift while turning are so rare that I really don’t see any benefit to having the paddles fixed to the column.

        Reply
  7. Zykotec

    To me ‘applying lock’ does sound like what you would do when you have already lost control and there is no more steering to give, as in literally ‘driving’ sideways. In which case I doubt changing gears would help at all…
    I do admit I love to play with language, and as someone who spent all of my teenage years in the 90’s I’m probably partially guilty of ‘ruining’ both basic classic sentence build up, and the literal meaning of both Norwegian and English words. (also I have read, watched, and heard Douglas Adams’ ‘hitchiker’s guide’ , the English language can be a playground)
    I do however miss a time when ‘epic’ meant something really epic. I don’t know a good word to replace ‘epic’ yet, and I’m sometimes at a loss for words, because todays ‘epic’ (which is apparently not any more amazing than a good joke/burn, or a movie like Jurassic World) just isn’t good enough for actual epic stuff…

    Reply
  8. Cptbkl

    We also seem to have left basic grammar behind. “Disrespect” is a noun, not a verb. It is never “the exact same thing.” It should be “exactly the same thing.” Your car never “needs washed”. It needs to be washed or needs washing. My head hurts when I see grammar ignored.

    Reply
  9. -Nate-Nate

    “Situations where you need to shift while turning are so rare that I really don’t see any benefit to having the paddles fixed to the column.”

    Pfffttt ~ you amateur .

    How else are ya gonna impress the bitches if you can’t drop a couple gears and smoke the tires while at full lock sliding sideways ? .

    If you damn kids would stay off my law and go practice burn outs in the parking lot , I’d not have to explain all this basic stuff to ya .

    =8-) .

    -Nate

    Reply
  10. MrGreenMan

    I remember hearing Kyle Busch describe “go kart steering” as one turn either way to the wheel lock, so it was one-to-one, which made it very quick for good or ill. I still have no idea what the original comment was intending to say unless he’s somehow endorsing shuffle steering, which I thought real racers did not do.

    Reply
  11. VolandoBajo

    Language can, and does, continue to evolve. However, that does not preclude the fact that its meaning can also be corrupted or diluted when it evolves in certain directions.

    It must be allowed to continue to grow, as it has in the past, or it would tend to lose its power over time, just as much as when meanings are corrupted. But the major threat to the language today, as Jack points out, is hyperbolically overworking common words.

    However, as expressive as the English language is, I have managed to become fairly fluent in Spanish (castellano) over the years, and the more I learn, the more I appreciate the richness, subtlety and poetry of that language, compared to English, French or virtually any other language I have been exposed to.

    The classic English language Spanish Grammar is the 5th edition of Butt and Benjamin. And in both it, and on spanishdict.com, as well as other reference materials I have, I keep encountering the phrase “…the difference between the two is almost untranslatable in English…” and similar phrases.

    And I can assure you that there many such nuances in Spanish for which English, and especially British English has no way of differentiating.

    As to other language differences, I think that Hitler’s famous Sudetenland speech would barely stir up a crowd, if it were delivered in English. However, that is not to say that English cannot be used to stir up the feelings of a crowd. Witness Churchhill’s “There will always be an England” speech. It is just a different kind of feeling that English can stir up, when compared to German.

    But I will assert that Spanish is the most beautiful and subtly expressive language on the face of the Earth. YMMV, but if you think otherwise, I demand proof.

    Gracias. Eso es todo.

    Reply
  12. tedward

    I agree and really appreciated this article. The given example is a bad one however. “Oppo” is in the tryouts for inclusion as a new word. We’ve abbreviated it beyond casual identification with its parent and are increasingly using it in service of a, rather well explained in your article, completely unrelated meaning. Isn’t that how our useful collection of almost synonyms comes to be?

    Reply
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