Sun, Jan 11, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Janus strikes again -- two hot phrases that look both ways

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"I was able to assure them," President Bush said after his Thanksgiving visit to the US troops at Baghdad airport, "that we were going to stay the course and get the job done" A few weeks before, Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, told the press that those attacking our forces were "trying to sow fear and chaos so that we do not stay the course." (Tony Blair, the British prime minister, prefers "see through to the end" and "stick with it.")

When I asked the Lexicographic Irregulars if the stirring phrase of indefatigability had a nautical origin, Doug Wilson, a member of the American Dialect Society, came up with an account of the International Sculling Races in The Brooklyn Eagle of Aug. 29, 1886: "When asked as to his capacity for endurance, Beach replied, `I think I can stay the course.'"

Antedating that were citations sent in by Ben Zimmer at the University of Chicago about horses on a racecourse (The Times of London, 1879: "Jockeys who have ridden him think he cannot stay the course") and, even earlier, about rowing competitions (an 1873 New York Times account about Dartmouth's crew: "All question as to their staying the course was set at rest").

But wait -- are we going off the semantic track? Zimmer notes that "before this period, citations for stay the course invariably have the countervailing sense of `to stop or check the course (of something).'" He offers up Edgar Allan Poe, in his 1835 Arabesque tale King Pest: "But it lay not in the power of images, or sensations ... to stay the course of men."

From then on back, it's arresting all the way. The meaning of stay when associated with course meant "stop." John Baker, a lawyer in Washington, sent in an 1802 citation from a South Carolina case insisting that "the suspending acts operated only to interrupt and stay the course of the act of limitations." The English dramatist and poet Christopher Marlowe noted in 1588 how his tragic character Dr. Faustus turned back: "Hee stayed his course, and so returned home."

Janus strikes again. This is an example, in phrase form, of a "Janus word" -- a term that is its own antonym. (The face of the Roman god Janus was placed on both sides of the gates of his temple, one looking forward and the other looking back, making the god of beginnings -- whose name is the root of "January" -- also the symbol of two-facedness.) Examples are sanction, either "approval" or "punishment"; oversight, either "watchful care" or "silly mistake"; and awful, which has traveled from awe inspiring (now awesome) to "really miserable."

If you are prepared to stay the course in this metamorphosis of metaphors, consider the bumpy road taken by downhill.

When you say It's all downhill from here, you could mean "From now on, it's going to be easy -- smooth sailing ahead." Contrariwise, when you say that or It's downhill all the way, you could mean the opposite: "It can only get worse from now on."

Sometimes a writer uses context to make plain which meaning is meant. "How well Iraqis absorb that kind of freedom," wrote my colleague Tom Friedman last month, "will determine whether the capture of Saddam is the high point of this drama -- and it's all downhill from here -- or just a necessary first chapter in the most revolutionary democracy-building project ever undertaken in the Arab world." In that context, downhill has the sense of "deteriorating" in contrast to the upbeat alternative that follows.

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