Operation Yellowhammer

I’m sure I’m not the only person in Britain somewhat nonplussed to discover that the British government’s secret contingency plans for no-deal Brexit — now swinging into operation — is called Operation Yellowhammer.

Let’s start with the decision to call it an “Operation”, as though they were preparing to storm the Normandy beaches. This is of a piece with the choice to call the feckless band meeting at 10 Downing Street to plan this shit show the “war cabinet”.

The name of such an operation is an unconstrained choice, pure public relations, so I can think of only a few possible explanations:

  1. Whereas you or I might think the overriding concern at this moment would be to communicate reassurance, to calm a jittery public, the war cabinet thought it would be much more valuable to arouse a sense of panic and rage. The name is maximally emotional and violent: “yellow” is warning, danger, “hammer” is a crude weapon. (It’s not even like “yellowhammer” is a real word.*)
  2. Like explanation 1, but the war cabinet wasn’t thinking about the public at all. Instead, Boris Johnson worked everyone up into a fit of Churchillian indignation against the Eurofascists and their normed bananas (nudge, wink), and Operation Yellowhammer seemed like just the thing to arouse corresponding fury in the civil servants who would have to create the plan. That the plan might actually be executed, and the public would learn about the name, was too far in the future to bother with.
  1. They tried to be reassuring. The British are now just really bad at public relations, which seemed like the last thing they still knew how to do well, after they gave up on diplomacy and sensible government.
  • Rejected names:
      • Operation Channel Hurricane
      • Operation Second Armada
      • Operation Frogs and Sprouts
      • Project Europa Delenda Est
      • Project Fear (good proposal, but already used).

    * Update: I have been informed that the yellowhammer is actually a widespread little yellow bird that does not travel between Britain and the European continent.

    “Spirit of innovation”

    I’m fascinated by the way ideologies get hardwired into language, so that the ideology becomes unchallengeable and yet invisible. And sometimes you only notice it when you observe how words have changed their meanings or their valence over time.

    Thus I was brought up short by this remark of George Washington (quoted in Michael Klarman’s wonderful new account of the origins of the US Constitution The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution) expressing his concerns that the first Congress, considering the clamour for a Bill of Rights and other immediate amendments would produce such

    amendments as might be really proper and generally satisfactory without producing or at least fostering such a spirit of innovation as will overturn the whole system.

    I’ve never seen the word innovation used to express something to be avoided, rather than something to be promoted and praised. (The one exception is in time-series analysis, where the “innovation” has a purely neutral technical sense.) There is a whole world-view wrapped up in our modern veneration of “innovation”.

    Senatorial finitude

    A paradox. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has chided the Democrats for suggesting that basic honesty is essential for a Supreme Court justice, as well as not trying to rape anyone.

    The time for endless delay and obstruction has come to a close,” he said.

    This suggests that there was once a time for endless delay and obstruction, but it has now ended. The First Age has passed. The giants of legislative logic will fade into song and fable.

    Credibility gap

    So, this is weird, on a purely linguistic level: Donald Trump, commenting on yesterday’s Senate testimony about the Brett Kavanaugh sexual assault allegations, allowed that Christine Blasey Ford, the accuser, was a “very credible witness”, and that Brett Kavanaugh was “incredible”. I know, words acquire nonliteral meanings. But still…

    Onus: on us

    When the onus is on some party in a negotiation, the point is to say which of several possible parties really needs to make a move. People have been pushing the onus back and forth in the Brexit negotiation:

    EU Says Onus Is on U.K. for Brexit Progress

    The onus is on Parliament now to protect our post-Brexit rights

    Philip Hammond sees Brexit onus on Europe

    But now Theresa May has announced at an EU summit that

    the onus is now on all of us to get this deal done.

    While I grant that her claim seems orthographically undeniable — onus = on us — I wonder what the prime minister could possibly be talking about. There literally are only two parties to the Brexit negotiation, the UK and the EU, so who else could the onus be on? Or is “us” her fellow heads of government in Salzburg, who have the responsibility to take the decision out of the hands of the bumbling bureaucrats of Brussels?

    Written wordplay

    Isaac Asimov, in a side-remark in his Treasury of Humor, mentioned a conversation in which a participant expressed outrage at a politician blathering about “American goals”. “His specialty is jails, not goals,” and then seeming to expect some laughter. It was only on reflection that Asimov realised that the speaker, who was British, had spelled it gaols in his mind.

    I was reminded of this by this Guardian headline:

    Labour has shifted focus from bingo to quinoa, say swing voters

    The words bingo and quinoa look vaguely similar on the page, but they’re not pronounced anything alike. Unlike Asimov’s example, this wordplay is in writing, so spelling is important. My feeling is that wordplay has to be fundamentally sound-based, so this just doesn’t work for me. Maybe the Guardian editors believe in visual wordplay.

    Alternatively, maybe they don’t know how quinoa is pronounced.

    Hysterical costs

    There’s an interesting article in the NY Times about a young legal scholar, Lina Khan, who is gaining attention for a novel and detailed argument that antitrust enforcement in the US has come to be inappropriately fixated on price as the sole anticompetitive harm, and so giving a free pass to Amazon. I have no original thoughts about the argument, but I am intrigued by the dismissive language of the critics cited in the article. One (antitrust lawyer Konstantin Medvedovsky) called her approach “hipster antitrust”. And then there’s this:

    Herbert Hovenkamp, an antitrust expert at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, wrote that if companies like Amazon are targeted simply because their low prices hurt competitors, we might “quickly drive the economy back into the Stone Age, imposing hysterical costs on everyone.”

    Is “hysterical costs” a real thing? Or was he just reaching for a word that would impugn the rationality of a female opponent, and came up with the classic wandering womb?

    Trump’s branding

    In reading Donald Trump’s rant on the anonymous freak who wrote in the NY Times that, yes, Donald Trump is a raving loon, but no need to take any extreme measures like electing Democrats, because the people supposedly working for him have everything under control, I was reminded of a weird tic that Trump has that I’ve never seen remarked upon. It’s in this line:

    “We have somebody in what I call the failing New York Times talking about he’s part of the resistance within the Trump administration. This is what we have to deal with,” he told reporters in the East Room early Wednesday evening.

    Now, if you’re trying to insult someone, you say, “He’s an idiot.” You don’t say, “He’s what I call an idiot.” Calling attention to the fact that this is merely your private designation saps the force of the insult.

    Trump is enormously proud of his ability to brand people with epithets (even if no one else actually uses them). So proud, that he needs to call attention to his invention at every opportunity, even against the objective of the epithets. One of the many ways that he acts like a toddler (or a Hollywood producer). “Look Mama, I made it self!”

    I imagine a version of the Odyssey featuring Homer’s trademarked characters “what I call grey-eyed Athena” and “Odysseus, or as I call him, ‘sacker of cities'”.

    Squatting on the truth

    Is the phrase diddly-squat obscene? I’m wondering because the word appears in Boris Johnson’s latest newspaper column:

    the reality is that in this negotiation the EU has so far taken every important trick. The UK has agreed to hand over £40 billion of taxpayers’ money for two thirds of diddly squat.

    It’s not that I find the word personally offensive — I’d rank it as low- to mid-grade obscenity — but surprising and out-of-place. Even for the desperate-for-attention Johnson this seemed like a surprisingly inappropriate word choice, simultaneously childish and scatological, rather like an eight-year-old trying to impress with his newly acquired potty vocabulary.

    But maybe the word has different connotations in the UK than in the US — or maybe even within the US opinions differ. To my ear, the “squat” here is a more graphic substitution for “shit”, and “diddle” has the slang meaning of illicit groping or intercourse. The OED tells me that the original form — apparently American — was doodly-squat, with “doodle” a now rare slang term for excrement.

    Anyway, I certainly hear the word as scatological, but I wonder how others perceive it.

    Self-deconstructing clichés: Weight-loss edition

    Continuing my series on figures of speech being modified to eliminate their actual meaning, we have this comment on the discovery of the “holy grail” of obesity research. The holy grail, as a reminder, was a unique item in Christian mythology, the dish that caught Jesus’ blood, the single holy focus of the quest of King Arthur’s knights. According to legend it had magical healing properties. As for this holy grail,

    Tam Fry, of Britain’s National Obesity Forum, said the drug is potentially the “holy grail” of weight-loss medicine… “I think there will be several holy grails, but this is a holy grail and one which has been certainly at the back of the mind of a lot of specialists for a long time.

    As for the magical healing,

    All of the other things apply – lifestyle change has got to be root and branch part of this.

    And then we have to wonder — a self-deconstructing cliché twofer — what does he mean by “root and branch part”?