William Hague, leader of the Tory opposition in the House of Commons, rose to denounce the prime minister: "Tony Blair is the control freak who has lost control." In an editorial about the devolution of power to Wales, Britain's Daily Telegraph noted, "Tony Blair has acknowledged that he has occasionally acted like the control freak his opponents accuse him of being."
The charge has equal puissance on this side of the Atlantic. The Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle, used the phrase to describe his Republican counterpart, Trent Lott. And during the recent presidential primary elections, The Austin American-Statesman quoted an unidentified aide to Governor Jane Dee Hull of Arizona as derogating Senator John McCain in these words: "The senator gets very heated about things. He's a control freak."
The favored political attack phrase means "one obsessed by the need to dominate; a person driven by the urge to be in total command." It is not as serious a blast as "totalitarian" and does not carry the sexual overtone of "dominatrix," but -- by suggesting the control is for control's sake rather than for any rational purpose -- imputes more neuroticism than "micromanager."
That is because control as a noun has become a double-edged sword. To be out of control is to approach what used to be called "raving mad," but at the other extreme is the grim-faced, white-knuckled control freak, with his obsession to extend untrammeled authority into every detail of others' lives.
Meanwhile, the meaning of the slang noun freak -- first recorded in Finley Peter Dunne's 1895 "Mr Dooley" in The Chicago Evening Post as "the deluded ol' freak" -- has also been getting quirkier with the passage of time. A century ago, it meant "eccentric" or "abnormal," as in the carnival freak show exploiting specimens of obesity or dwarfism, and later as an adjectival synonym for "aberrational," "deviant" or "hard to imagine," as in "freak accident."
In the 1960s, it was adopted in drug lingo as a verb, to freak out, meaning "to rave under the influence of hallucinatory drugs." It was then applied as a noun in speed freak and acid freak. In his 1977 book, Dispatches, Michael Herr, who had covered the Vietnam War for Esquire magazine, applied the term control freak to "one of those people who always ... had to know what was coming next."
The term became favored by Hollywood screenwriters and producers dealing with that war; it was repeated in the 1978 film The Deer Hunter and in the 1979 Apocalypse Now By 1986, the meaning softened to "enthusiast, aficionado, maven," and Steven Spielberg freely confessed to TV Guide, "I'm a control freak." (In the same way, language mavens call themselves word freaks.)
In current use, the meaning of the combination of control and freak has veered toward "neurotic." In The Boston Globe in 1992, Matthew Gilbert noted how crowds prized the singer Madonna's "control-freakishness." Writing four years later about Barbra Streisand, The Sunday Times could not decide whether she was "America's greatest female singer or a power-mad woman whose control-freakishness makes working with her all but impossible save from a kneeling position."
That latest interpretation of freakishness as "off the deep end" is why Daschle, when asked about his use of control freak about Lott, hastily backed off: "I say it in a light-hearted way. I don't mean he is a freak. I'm just saying he's a control nut."
In Senate rhetoric, evidently nut is far less pejorative than freak. That reflects general usage; to be nutty is to be mildly crackbrained and is often used in self-description of too-earnest advocacy: I readily call myself a "privacy nut," but would not flagellate myself as a "privacy freak."
A nut is a freak you kind of like. Loosey-goosey descriptive lexicographers, with their anything-goes passivity, deride prescriptive pop grammarians like me as control freaks, but I look bemusedly at those round-heeled dictionary writers as common-usage nuts.
On the right's words
William F. Buckley announced last month that he has decided to give up public speaking; in its stead, this pioneering practitioner of self-mocking rodomontade has endowed his conservative followers with Let Us Talk of Many Things, a high-stylish compilation of 50 years of piquant and literate comment.
His speeches show his easy way of teaching as if in passing. "I shall not introduce -- the rhetoricians call this paralepsis -- the wonderful woman sitting, appropriately, on my left, Mrs Robert Kennedy." This is a device of emphasis by pretending to omit (the old "to say nothing of" and "not to mention" trick). When you paralep like that, but then call attention to your own emphasis-by-omission, you're subtly instructing.
He also provokes you to teach yourself. Buckley is known for his delight in using unfamiliar words. He referred to Henry Kissinger and "one truth no one can challenge: the petrology of our association." I had to look it up: Petrology is the study of the structure of rocks.
So why not say "the rock-solid quality of our association"? Because the speaker sometimes wants to push his audience a little. He is saying: Go look up the word -- work on it a little -- and then you won't forget it or my point.
He's made those of us in the word trade stretch. "There is pleasure in even a little progress," he said in tribute to the conservative thinker James Burnham, "even among those of us taught, at our mother's knee, not to seek to immanentize the eschaton."
Eschatology is the study of ultimate destiny, the purpose of life reckoned at the last accounting. The eschaton is its Greek root: the last thing, the divinely ordained climax of history, with its present sense of a final judgment that should inform our lives. That's the easy part.
But immanentize? The Latin immanere, "to remain in," leads us to immanent, "inherent, intrinsic," with a special philosophical sense of "confined to the mind." It's not a word I would use, because inherent does the job and immanent is too easily confused with imminent, "about to take place," with a connotation of danger.
So I admitted defeat and called Buckley.
"The source of immanentize the eschaton is the 1952 New Science of Politics, by Eric Voegelin," he explained. "It's a warning against taking ultimate reality and treating it pantheistically, rather than as an objective philosophical phenomenon." The conservative pioneer added: "It was turned into a bumper sticker by the Young Americans for Freedom. Delicious, don't you think?"
William Safire, a syndicated current affairs columnist for the New York Times, also writes a weekly column about the use of language in US society.
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