Sun, Dec 19, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Channeling language back onto the straight and narrow path

By William Safire  /  NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In the transcript of a spirited conversation between The New York 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 New York 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 New York 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 spiritualist 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 US 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 CIA, told the Senate, "Saddam channeled some of the best and brightest Iraqi minds and a substantial portion of Iraq's wealth toward his WMD 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.

STRAIT SCOOP

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."

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