"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." \nThat sensible caution against obsessive reform was introduced into the American political language in the late 1970s by Bert Lance, who served as President Jimmy Carter's budget chief. Ol' Bert, a Georgian, claimed no coinage, saying, "It's a bit of old Southern wisdom." \nFast-forward 25 years to another phrase involving metaphoric breakage. Secretary of State Colin Powell was quoted in Plan of Attack, a book in which he was a key source, as cautioning US President George W. Bush before the war that he would "own" Iraq, with all its problems, after military victory. \n"Privately," wrote Bob Woodward, "Powell and [Richard] Armitage called this the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it." \nLarry King of CNN reminded Powell of that remark this year, noting that the large home-furnishings chain was upset. Powell unhesitatingly apologized, saying, "We now know that your corporate policy is that if you break it accidentally, then you don't have to pay for it." \nHe added jocularly that "it came from Tom Friedman, the columnist. So it's Tom Friedman's fault." \nAll I had to do in my etymological research was to walk 10 steps down the hall to my New York Times colleague in columny. Tom was more than happy to clear it up: "Before the war and in all my speeches, I used it. I just remembered the phrase from the china shop -- `You break it, you own it.' That was in my head for years." \nIn his column of Feb. 12, last year, he referred to "the pottery store rule," the words not capitalized, making the point that invasion carried the responsibility of rebuilding a nation of 23 million. "But in my speeches I referred to the Pottery Barn." He absolves the chain: "I made up the whole thing," and adds: "I was a little surprised to see Powell being quoted as telling that to the president. I was also pleased. I only wish the president had paid attention." \nNow we have two breakage metaphors, separate and distinct. Here is how Senator John Kerry, responding to a charge of inconsistency, mistakenly conflated the two in the first debate; then, realizing he had waded into the wrong metaphor -- extricated himself with few noticing. \n"Secretary of State Colin Powell told this president the Pottery Barn rule," Kerry told Jim Lehrer and 62 million viewers, "'If you break it, you fix it."' \nRather than fixing his mistake, which changed the whole point of the saying, and which most people did not catch (excepting Ol' Bert, Tom and me), Kerry creatively worked his way out of it: "Now if you break it, you made a mistake. It's the wrong thing to do. But you own it. And then you've got to fix it and do something with it. Now that's what we have to do. There's no inconsistency." \nTHE PODIUM ALSO RISES \n"Bush slouched and stayed coiled tight," commented Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times about that first presidential debate this year, "but Kerry seemed at times to be waltzing with his partner, the lectern." \nAs a word for "a small, high desk with a slanted top for holding the notes of a lecturer" (both lectern and lecturer are rooted in the Latin word for "read"), lectern may be getting near its last waltz. \nThat is because two high-powered political lawyers who were entrusted by their clients with details that are thought to make or break candidacies -- and to whom US$600 an hour is considered chicken feed -- backed up by their vast, cumbrous array of counsel and law clerks, have banished the word from the vocabulary of televised debate. \nVernon Jordan Jr., Democrat and famous "Friend of Bill," and James Baker III, Republican and former secretary of state, negotiated an agreement on behalf of Bush and John Kerry that will be remembered by lexicographers yet unborn for its notorious Section 6(e): "At no time during these debates shall either candidate move from their designated area behind their respective podiums." \nSet aside their grammatical disagreement between either and their; both of these eminent attorneys cannot concern themselves with mere pronoun agreement. And stipulate that modern stylists have abandoned the traditional style of spelling the plural of a word ending in um, like podium, with an a; (send your memorandums about stadiums elsewhere). \nNo; the nit to be picked today has to do with the Jordan-Baker entente illustrated by "behind ... podiums." That noun, rooted in pod, meaning "foot" (as any podiatrist can tell you), is defined accurately in the second edition of the Encarta Webster's Dictionary, published last week by Bloomsbury and with its US general editor the perceptive Anne Soukhanov: "a small raised platform that ... somebody giving a speech can stand on." \nNote the notion of "standing on"; the essence of a podium has long been that it is underfoot. Podia (don't touch that, copy editor; I'm entitled to one nutty idiosyncrasy a week) enable speakers, standing on them, to look out over audiences and be seen as well as heard. \nIn this somewhat iconoclastic judgment, I am in sync with the New York Times stylebook: "a speaker stands on a podium and at or behind a lectern." \nSoukhanov's lexies dutifully note that one sense of podium is synonymous with "lectern," as do roundheeled synonymists at several other leading dictionaries. Lawyers Jordan and Baker, masters of diplomatic ambiguity, can take refuge in such ready acceptance of common usage. \nBut they depart from the Times stylebook at their linguistic peril. \nWhen lectern fully absorbs the meaning of podium, what word will we apply to that necessary step on which all speakers, especially but not only the height-challenged, need to stand? \nI heard it the other day from a stagehand, when a little guy could not see over the top of a lectern that could not be lowered: "Somebody get him a riser."
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