We're all sick and tired of the debt ceiling debate, so I'm just going off on a complete tangent today for a little grammar rant. Hope no one minds.
What brought this on was seeing a headline which tried to shoehorn the word "debt" into the term "Armageddon" in a truly cringe-worthy fashion. I believe it was spelled "Armadebton," but I refuse to go look it up to check, so there.
We seem to be in a post-millennial period here, where just about any news story can be fit into either the "Armageddon" mold; or its cousin, the "Apocalypse." Both words have that neat-o keen-o factor, and both refer to Earth-shattering events. So perhaps it is natural that they be overused in this manner. But I have to say, I'm hoping the whole thing is just a fad which will fade quickly.
So far, the trend shows no signs of going away, though. When a large snowstorm hit Washington a year ago, it was immediately called either "Snowmageddon" or the "Snowpocalypse," depending on the editor's whim. Now, personally, I've always thought "blizzard" was a pretty cool word, but apparently it just wasn't sufficiently end-of-the-world-ish for the media types. A few weekends ago, a planned freeway shutdown in Los Angeles was touted as "Carmageddon" (I guess "Carpocalypse" didn't sound right, or something). This one was even funnier, because the anticipated traffic jam simply did not appear, even after all the media hype.
And now we've got "Debtpocalypse" looming in the political world. Oh, you just know someone's going to use that term in the next few days, right? Sigh.
The truly strange thing about all of this is that it really should have happened back in the 1990s. There's even a word for it -- millenarianism. Rising interest in focusing on the End Times should really have peaked right before the Christian calendar's odometer turned over a three-zeros figure for only the second time. That was the time one might reasonably have expected overusage of the terms for the final battle between good and evil (Armageddon) and the end of the world as we know it (the Apocalypse). Instead, we all worried about the much-hipper and snappier "Y2K" problem in all our computers (except, of course, those of us who owned Macintoshes).
Back in the 1990s, another fad term was in vogue with headline-writers across America, who were wont to abuse it freely. The phrase actually came from Saddam Hussein, when he promised America "the mother of all battles" in the first Iraq War. Such a maternal onslaught never materialized, however, and the phrase was quickly adapted for just about any subject under the sun. Which was quite easy to do, since it did not involve coining a new word, but rather just attaching anything to the end of: "The mother of all...".
Now, about twelve years too late, we seem to be stuck with bastardized "-pocalypses" and "-mageddons." But every time I see one of these pop up, I can't help but think this trend would have fallen into the "better never than late" category.
Maybe it's just me. Always a possibility.
Personally, rather than worrying about squeezing "debt" into one of the terms for what used to be known online as "teotwawki" (or just "teotw," depending on whether you felt like tacking on "as we know it" to the end of the phrase "the end of the world," of course), I'm going to get back to the real grammar problem of the day: is "brinkmanship" or "brinksmanship" the proper term? The former (ess-less) term is the original one, favored by dictionaries. Loosely translated, it is defined as the quality of taking things to the brink. Since brink is singular, we get brinkmanship. But the term itself hasn't been around that long, and English adapts and changes over time, as we all know. The problem with brinkmanship is that it's a bit of a tongue-twister. Adding the "s" makes it a lot easier to say. And there are precedents -- a "landsman" is a man who lives or works the (singular) land. The "s" was obviously stuck in there to make the word easier to speak. Not as convincingly, there is "sportsmanship," since the root term could be either singular (sport) or plural (sports). Oh well, nobody ever claimed English was consistent, right?
Since I noticed this problem (in the debt ceiling fracas, over the past few weeks), what is interesting is that the news media are not consistent, either. I've seen "brinkmanship" and "brinksmanship" in the same newspaper -- even on the same day. So it really does seem to be a term in flux.
But that's no comfort for our editorial staff, who prizes our own consistency in style and usage. Faced with two choices, we must boldly grasp one and leave the other by the semantic wayside. Normally, we give a lot of deference to a term's origins, and a fair amount of weight to the reference books. Which is why we still use "TelePrompTer" here, by way of an example.
But this time, we're going to come down on the side of modernism, and go with "brinksmanship" (unless there is a hue and outcry from our readers, of course, which we also give lots of deference to, especially on grammatical matters). Our logic for doing so is weak, yet convincing: every time I use the word in conversation, it comes out as "brinksmanship." You may argue that we've just been brainwashed by the folks who pick up the money from banks in armored cars, but we honestly feel this not to be the case. Ahem.
Somehow, we feel that this issue is going to come up not just in the final week of Debtpocalypsemageddon, but also in the next year and a half of divided government in Washington. So, from now on, the partisans will be performing brinksmanship, at least when you read about them here.
The ChrisWeigant.com editorial staff has spoken. So mote it be.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant