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

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Sun, Jan 11, 2004 - Page 9

"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.

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.