[Paleopsych] Safire: Strait and Narrow

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Tue Jan 25 15:13:37 UTC 2005

Strait and Narrow
On Language by William Safire, New York Times Magazine, 4.12.19

[Note the date. The column is really called "Channel," but I changed it to 
its most important topics. I have been boldly marking any book I read that 
gives "straight and narrow" out of ignorance. Ditto for miniscule, when it 
should be minuscule. I can't recall other cases where I'm a grammar hound. 
Safire will be missed, for both his political and language columns.]

In the transcript of a spirited conversation between The
Times's chief film critics . . . (wait -- should that be
with an apostrophe followed by an s to indicate possession,
or with an apostrophe alone? The British royals won't let
you into the Court of St. James's without the final s --
and the name is pronounced James-ziz. But more Americans
are dropping both the final s in print and the ziz in
pronunciation. The usage called for by The New York Times
Manual of Style and Usage is ''Almost all singular words
ending in s require a second s as well as the apostrophe,''
with the ''almost'' allowing exceptions for Jesus, Moses,
Achilles and other ancients, as well as for other occasions
when two sibilant sounds are separated by a vowel sound --
you can't write Texas's because that's three zizes, which
can put you to sleep).

We had better begin today's linguistic harangue again. In
the transcript of a spirited conversation between two film
critics of The Times (heh!), A.O. Scott observed to Manohla
Dargis about Pedro Almodovar that the Spanish director
''has been channeling [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder and
Douglas Sirk in a really beautiful, interesting way.''

The channeling has been getting a lot of use lately. After
a recent fracas on the basketball court, The Times reported
that one university president ''condemned the behavior of
the Gamecocks who channeled Ron Artest against Clemson.''
Evan Thomas of Newsweek wrote that the presidential aide
Karen Hughes ''had a knack for parroting Bush's tone and
voice, for 'channeling' him.'' Time noted that in a costume
contest, ''the weatherman Al Roker channeled a pre-diet
Oprah Winfrey.'' And coming back to film criticism, it was
Oprah who hailed the actor Jamie Foxx in the movie ''Ray''
with ''I swear he channeled Ray Charles.''

''My understanding of that use of channel,'' writes Tony
Scott in response to my query, ''which is based more on
vague intuitions than on hard philological data, is that it
has been employed by spiritualists who claim to communicate
with the dead. When they go into a trance and speak in the
voice of a departed spirit, they are said to be
'channeling' that spirit, which is what I said Almodovar
was doing with the shades of Fassbinder and Sirk.'' He used
it in conversation; ''because of its connotation of
superstitious hocus-pocus, I don't think I would use it as
readily in writing.''

The growing popularity of the spirtualist sense of the verb
has spilled over into the general sense of ''convey,
transmit, direct toward a center,'' extended to ''serve as
an intermediary.'' In U.S. News and World Report, Kenneth
Walsh wrote about the swift Cabinet changes made by
President Bush, ''He is consolidating power at the White
House, channeling ever more influence to Vice President
Dick Cheney, his closest confidant, and counselor Karl
Rove.'' In the same sense, Charles Duelfer, consultant to
the C.I.A., told the Senate, ''Saddam channeled some of the
best and brightest Iraqi minds and a substantial portion of
Iraq's wealth toward his W.M.D. program.''

The hot new word is rooted in the Latin canalis, ''pipe,
groove, channel,'' which led to the Old French chanel,
giving it that nice aroma today.


In an article titled ''Bush Administration's Biblical
Exodus,'' I wrote that I had long tried to keep the
departing Secretary of State, Colin Powell, ''on the
grammatical strait and narrow.''

''Straight and narrow, surely,'' e-mailed Lorcan Folan. ''A
strait, being narrow, makes 'narrow' redundant.''

Others were suspicious of a trick. ''I wouldn't put it past
you,'' wrote Bruce Drysdale, a copy editor of The Tacoma
News Tribune, in Washington, ''to be intentionally (with a
sly smile on your face) mixing words. . . . Did you mean to
write 'strait and narrow'? (After all, the entire lede
revolves around butchered words.) It's that way on the
wire, with no cq or sic anywhere. . . . I feel compeled to
ask you to cq it -- or correct it.'' (In journalese, CQ,
usually in caps, means ''print as is; it's not a mistake,''
and its origin is a mystery.) [Sic] is Latin for ''thus;
so'' and means ''I'm not correcting his mistake,'' and I
did not use it after the friendly copy editor's misspelling
of compelled, above, because I'm a softie.)

But a few correspondents, such as Walter Naumer, got my
drift: ''May I thank you for the correct quote of Jesus'
admonition. Strait it is.''

In the 1611 King James Version of Matthew 7:13-14,
following the Golden Rule, Jesus says, ''Enter ye in at the
strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way,
that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in
thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way,
which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.''

That word, and its spelling, was picked up by John Bunyan
in his 1678 ''Pilgrim's Progress,'' as Goodwill warns
Christian to avoid the ''crooked and wide; and thus thou
mayst distinguish the right from the wrong: the right only
being strait and narrow.'' The poet William Ernest Henley,
in his ''Invictus,'' played off this with, ''It matters not
how strait the gate . . . I am the master of my fate.''

I immediately went to the delicious
www.testycopyeditors.org to see if anybody took the bait.
Sure enough, under the heading ''Am I ready for a
'straight' jacket?'' there were complaints about my strait
along with the warning: ''It's a trap!''

Straight means ''unbending; without curves.'' Strait means
''narrow'' -- used mostly today to describe tight space, as
in the Straits of Gibraltar -- and thus makes its placement
next to that word seemingly redundant. Standing alone,
strait, meaning ''narrow,'' is archaic if not obsolete, and
the modern spelling is straight.

But -- and here's what I was getting at in consciously
using the old spelling -- when used in the phrase with
''narrow,'' the phrase's meaning is ''a morally upright,
ethically unwavering and law-abiding way of life, sometimes
derogated as merely 'conventional.'''


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