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

The same pessimistic meaning is apparent from the context of this jocular comment by Peter Jackson, the director of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy: The three movies were "probably the best films I'm ever going to make. It's all downhill from here."

But in 1936, a round-the-world commercial flier cheerfully told The New York Times: "Our landing on the mainland of the United States virtually completes the round world flight. It is all downhill from here now." Meaning, nothing stands in the way.

Leonard Woolf's 1967 autobiography, which recounted the nervous morbidity of his wife, the writer Virginia Woolf, had the opposite meaning: His title, Downhill All the Way" was a reflection of a glass-half-empty attitude.

An exhaustive survey of the databanks (maybe a score of citations, tops -- Webbing the surf, I get exhausted easily) suggests that pessimism is winning the metaphoric downhill race. "A show `jumps the shark,'" writes Joanne Ostrow in The Denver Post, "at that instant when fans realize it's all downhill from here."

Thus, as to stay the course has switched from "to stop and go home" to "to persevere," downhill all the way is losing its "easy from here on" sense and now primarily means "disaster ahead." Optimists won the first; pessimists are winning the second.

Actionable

"We've got to have that actionable intelligence," said Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez in Baghdad in September. Three months later, when Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge was asked if the basis for raising the threat level to Code Orange came from information gleaned from captives of al-Qaeda, he said, "If it is actionable, we would share it."

Here is a word that has undergone semantic shift, and lawyers are muttering about it. Even before 1591, when William Lambarde complained that his client had been "baited, and bitten with libels and slanders that be not actionable," that word has meant "subject to an action at law," legalese for "you have just furnished me grounds for a lawsuit." When one candidate says of another, "You're a jerk," that's fair comment. But when he says, "You're a convicted criminal" -- and the candidate so verbally assaulted was never a felon -- the smear is actionable.

Now the main sense of the word has been broadened to "that which can be acted on," or "act-on-able." Some intelligence may be useful to know -- Osama bin Laden probably has a kidney ailment -- but if the CIA could get his cave's address, that data would be actionable.

Mathematicians cannot figure the general public's theft of their parameter; musicians tootle that their crescendo does not mean "climax"; chemists react to the rip-off of their carbon-based organic. Now lawyers, like Hamlet, have lost the name of actionable. Sue me.

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