Like Humpty Dumpty

I have remarked in previous blogs about the tendency of politicians — and the government generally — to turn perfectly ordinary words like “socialism” and “communism” into scare words. In some cases the military, especially, will actually make up words or put them together in new and startling ways in order to mollify the terrible things they do. They tell us they are going to “take out” the enemy rather than to “destroy” them. And if the enemy happens to be human they are referred to as “soft targets.” They “neutralize” people, they don’t kill them; a planned assassination is referred to as a “target of opportunity” (think about that!); they mention “collateral damage” when they are really talking about the innocent civilians who are killed by such things as drones, which they call “unmanned aircraft.” But my favorite is the fact that they don’t call themselves the “Department of War” any more: they are the “Department of Defense.” Sure, why not? In any event, I Googled the euphemisms they use and came up with pages of them. It’s enough to make you tear your hair out — if you have any left these days. And it puts me in mind of one of my favorite conversations — the one between Alice and Humpty Dumpty after Alice walks through the looking-glass in Lewis Carroll’s classic.

Humpty is rather gruff and downright rude with Alice, as you will recall. He is always correcting her, as are many in the looking-glass world. But after Alice proves to Humpty by writing it down in her notebook that when you take 1 from 365 you get 364 (Humpty seems skeptical), Humpty  says “That’s glory for you!” Alice is puzzled, and the following exchange takes place:

Illustration by John Tenniel

Illustration by John Tenniel

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'”Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I mean ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,'” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs, they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice, “what that means.?”

“Now you talk like a reasonable child,” said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. “I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here the rest of your life.”

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

“Oh!” said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

“Ah, you should see ’em come round me of a Saturday night,” Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side: “for to get their wages, you know.”

Which helps to explain why the cost of “defense” spending is so high. The words the military make up to convince us they are not doing what we all know they are doing demand compensation and it must cost a great deal — given how many there are.

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6 thoughts on “Like Humpty Dumpty

  1. As Cole Porter wrote in ANYTHING GOES…your notes today Brother Hugh are “..delightful, delicious, delectable, delirious (well, not really!) a dilemma (people are moved and persuaded by our language), de-lovely (not sure what a THIS implies…lovely or not?). What your referencing Humpty and Alice reminds me of is that children’s literature is not really always for children…often from Lewis Caroll to Dr. Seuss children will smile while their parental reader will shudder or weap. Ah, The Places We Go, indeed. It’s “shock and awe” requires some “tough questioning!”

  2. Humpty reminds me of state legislator who at a town hall the other day quieted a citizen who inquired about issues he did not want to talk about it. He said you be quiet, I am the Senator and you are the citizen. He was quite Humpty-like with his pomposity. I hope he falls in next election. Good post, BTG

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