Monday, March 12, 2007

California Newspeak?

Today's SPIEGEL ONLINE has an interview that Marc Hujer and Gerhard Spörl conducted with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Putting aside any gratuitous jokes about who had how much command of English in this interview, there were some interesting twists and turns in the language. For example Hujer and Spörl decided to lead off by confronting Schwarzenegger on the contrast between his professions of environmentalism and his personal taste in cars:

SPIEGEL: So you still own your Hummers? Is that really the right car for someone who wants to protect the environment?

Schwarzenegger: These are no ordinary Hummers. I had General Motors customize one of them into a hydrogen Hummer. It's the only Hummer in the world with that motor. I had another converted from diesel to biofuel. But now that I am governor, I am no longer able to drive these cars because I am chauffeured by the California Highway Patrol. My Hummers are usually in the garage.

SPIEGEL: Is it not an odd compromise to transform an energy-wasting Hummer into an environmentally friendly car? Wouldn't it be easier for you to just go out and buy a smaller car?

Schwarzenegger: Not at all. The message I am trying to get across is exactly this: Protecting the environment does not require us to be against large SUVs or trucks. Instead we should develop technology to cut down greenhouse gas emissions because that is where the action is -- it's not about what the size of the car is. We just have to redo the vehicles.

SPIEGEL: So is it the new California Dream to do good without having to eschew luxury? Is it possible to be wasteful and conservationist at the same time?

Schwarzenegger: Yes, it's fantastic. A short while ago, our office became the first in the country to receive the first BMW luxury 7 series hydrogen car. BMW made 100 of them and they gave them to 100 opinion-makers, stars and people with high visibility. When those people drive around it again sells the idea that it is cool to drive a hydrogen car. But that doesn't mean that you should take this big car and make it smaller. Instead we should be saying: "Keep the luxury car!"

The idea of being "wasteful and conservationist at the same time" could have come right out of the examples of newspeak in George Orwell's 1984; but Schwarzenegger did not have any trouble embracing it. Of course now that "fantastic" has been appropriated as Hollywood-speak, we have a tendency to forget its more standard definition. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary currently offers the following "primary" definition of the word:

Existing only in the imagination; fabulous, unreal. Now spec. perversely or irrationally imagined.

It looks like the OED may understand Arnold better than the rest of us!

Later in the interview Hujer and Spörl revisited one of Schwarzenegger's more notorious ways with words:

SPIEGEL: Do you think the country is fed up with partisanship?

Schwarzenegger: Unbelievably fed up.

SPIEGEL: That comes from someone who, two years ago, wanted to pass radical reforms in California over the objections of Democrats. You called people who wanted compromise "girly men." Did you change your mind?

Schwarzenegger: I changed my mind, yes. But I did not call anyone "girly men" because they wanted to compromise. I called them "girly men" because they didn't want to make the decisions that were right for California.

This time I do not think we need any help from the OED staff! Apparently, the epithet was invoked to characterize those who "didn't want to make the decisions that were right for California." Does this mean that Nancy Pelosi (or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton) is guilty by connotation of the same problem? Arnold dug a hole for himself when he coined this phrase in the early days of his administration, and it was more than a little disconcerting to see how easy it was for the Spiegel to get him to keep digging the hole!

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