The Hazards Of Loyalty

Hypocrisy, hubris and Rielle Hunter.

For a man whose first—and only—winning election campaign was waged against an inarticulate septuagenarian hog farmer, John Edwards made quite a splash when he arrived in Washington in 1999 as the new junior senator from North Carolina. Lauch Faircloth (the hog farmer in question) had been anything but a formidable opponent, and Mr. Edwards did seem like a fast-talking opportunist, the quintessential trial-lawyer-turned-politician. But the members of the liberal establishment swooned—pundits and politicians alike. They found themselves charmed by his enthusiasm, his good looks, his populist appeal. Here, they said, was a younger Bill Clinton without the baggage, a potential standard bearer who could help the Democratic Party reclaim the middle ground that Newt Gingrich had seized for the GOP with his mid-1990s “revolution.”

No one swooned more than Andrew Young, whose memoir is aptly called “The Politician,” referring to the man he served rather than himself. A failed restaurateur who had gone back to school for a law degree and then taken a job with the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers, Mr. Young was just over 30 when he first saw Mr. Edwards in action. He was so impressed by an Edwards campaign speech that he turned to his wife, Cheri, and said: “This guy is going to be president one day. . . . I’m going to find a way to work for him.” Cheri, who emerges as one of the few sensible, decent people in this sadly tangled tale, had a different reaction. “She looked at me, unimpressed, rolled her eyes, and said, ‘Let’s go to the beach.’ ”

But her husband was smitten. He would spend the next decade as a trusted—and all too trusting—aide to a man he idolized as “one of the most promising leaders of a generation.” Mr. Young became a specimen of a familiar political type: the dedicated, servile staffer who subsists on the reflected power and glory of his boss, half-martyr, half-parasite. Mr. Young’s duties included slaving away as domestic servant, errand boy and babysitter for the Edwards family in addition to working in the senator’s office on Capitol Hill. Mr. Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, assured Mr. Young that he was “like family.” Certainly Mr. Young subordinated his own family to the whims of his employers, sustained by a dream of accompanying them to the White House. “I was just a young, ambitious guy who saw a real opportunity in Edwards,” he writes.

If Mr. Young had been a better judge of character, it might not have taken him 10 years to wake up. Signs of Mr. Edwards’s hypocrisy and opportunism were abundant: “On many nights, my phone would ring and I would hear the senator on the other end. Sometimes he sounded petty and irritated by ordinary events. He especially hated making appearances at county fairs, where ‘fat rednecks try to shove food down my face. I know I’m the people’s senator, but do I have to hang out with them?’ ”

Staffer-adulation would not have mattered much if Mr. Edwards hadn’t been taken so seriously by the power brokers of the Democratic Party, who kept hoping, as did Mr. Edwards himself, that he would break-out into national stardom: He ran for the 2004 presidential nomination, eventually becoming John’s Kerry’s running mate on the Democrats’ losing ticket. He was considered a front-runner for 2008 and was holding his own in the early polls until Nemesis arrived on the scene—ready to punish hubris—in the form of a shopworn, blond New Age enthusiast named Rielle Hunter.

By early 2008, rumors of Ms. Hunter’s affair with Mr. Edwards were making their way into a subculture of gossip-purveyors and political observers. It is clear from Mr. Young’s memoir that the Edwards staff knew what was going on and chose to deny it to any reporter who pushed for answers. Not that the mainstream media did much pushing—sexual misconduct was too “low” for respectable publications, even though they had served as a conveyor belt for Mr. Edwards’s heroic (and false) campaign narrative: that of a loyal husband attentive to his cancer-stricken wife.

It took the National Enquirer and a few bloggers to break the Hunter story. Mr. Edwards called the allegations “tabloid trash.” When Ms. Hunter’s pregnancy made the news, he persuaded Mr. Young to “take the bullet” by claiming to be the father—something Mr. Young now regrets. One could say that Mr. Young’s memoir is one long expression of sincere regret and shame for the role he played in Mr. Edwards’s public career.

Still, one man’s tragedy is another man’s farce. In its account of scandal-frenzy, “The Politician” begins to read like a collaboration between Tennessee Williams and P.G. Wodehouse—with Mr. and Mrs. Young and their three children and a very pregnant, very out-of-it Ms. Hunter secluded under the same roof, receiving abusive voice mails from an increasingly hysterical Elizabeth Edwards and being alternately schmoozed and abused by Mr. Edwards himself, with howling packs of reporters in hot pursuit.

In the end, the truth came out—as it was bound to. (Someday a staffer will serve his boss by reminding him of this inevitable fact.) Mr. Edwards admitted that he was the father of Ms. Hunter’s daughter—after a succession of lying scenarios collapsed and his candidacy, his career and his marriage were reduced to rubble. Perhaps it all goes back to Mr. Edwards’s trial-lawyer days. After dazzling juries for so long, he thought he could talk his way out of anything.

We are reminded by Mr. Young that one of Mr. Edwards’s early boosters was the late Ted Kennedy, who “saw almost unlimited potential in this young, energetic, well-spoken, good-looking Southerner.” In a conversation with Mr. Young, Mr. Kennedy waxed sentimental about Washington in the early 1960s: “It used to be civilized. The media was on our side. We’d get our work done by one o’clock and by two we were at the White House chasing women. We got the job done, and the reporters focused on the issues. . . . It was civilized.” We now know that Mr. Edwards’s idea of civilization was much the same as Kennedy’s.

Mr. Bakshian worked as a White House aide to Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.


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The Obama Spell Is Broken

Unlike this president, John Kennedy was an ironist who never fell for his own mystique.

The curtain has come down on what can best be described as a brief un-American moment in our history. That moment began in the fall of 2008, with the great financial panic, and gave rise to the Barack Obama phenomenon.

The nation’s faith in institutions and time-honored ways had cracked. In a little-known senator from Illinois millions of Americans came to see a savior who would deliver the nation out of its troubles. Gone was the empiricism in political life that had marked the American temper in politics. A charismatic leader had risen in a manner akin to the way politics plays out in distressed and Third World societies.

There is nothing surprising about where Mr. Obama finds himself today. He had been made by charisma, and political magic, and has been felled by it. If his rise had been spectacular, so, too, has been his fall. The speed with which some of his devotees have turned on him—and their unwillingness to own up to what their infatuation had wrought—is nothing short of astounding. But this is the bargain Mr. Obama had made with political fortune.

He was a blank slate, and devotees projected onto him what they wanted or wished. In the manner of political redeemers who have marked—and wrecked—the politics of the Arab world and Latin America, Mr. Obama left the crowd to its most precious and volatile asset—its imagination. There was no internal coherence to the coalition that swept him to power. There was cultural “cool” and racial absolution for the white professional classes who were the first to embrace him. There was understandable racial pride on the part of the African-American community that came around to his banners after it ditched the Clinton dynasty.

The white working class had been slow to be convinced. The technocracy and elitism of Mr. Obama’s campaign—indeed of his whole persona—troubled that big constituency, much more, I believe, than did his race and name. The promise of economic help, of an interventionist state that would salvage ailing industries and provide a safety net for the working poor, reconciled these voters to a candidate they viewed with a healthy measure of suspicion. He had been caught denigrating them as people “clinging to their guns and religion,” but they had forgiven him.

Mr. Obama himself authored the tale of his own political crisis. He had won an election, but he took it as a plebiscite granting him a writ to remake the basic political compact of this republic.

Mr. Obama’s self-regard, and his reading of his mandate, overwhelmed all restraint. The age-old American balance between a relatively small government and a larger role for the agencies of civil society was suddenly turned on its head. Speed was of the essence to the Obama team and its allies, the powerful barons in Congress. Better ram down sweeping social programs—a big liberal agenda before the people stirred to life again.

Progressives pressed for a draconian attack on the workings of our health care, and on the broader balance between the state and the marketplace. The economic stimulus, ObamaCare, the large deficits, the bailout package for the automobile industry—these, and so much more, were nothing short of a fundamental assault on the givens of the American social compact.

And then there was the hubris of the man at the helm: He was everywhere, and pronounced on matters large and small. This was political death by the teleprompter.

Americans don’t deify their leaders or hang on their utterances, but Mr. Obama succumbed to what the devotees said of him: He was the Awaited One. A measure of reticence could have served him. But the flight had been heady, and in the manner of Icarus, Mr. Obama flew too close to the sun.

We have had stylish presidents, none more so than JFK. But Kennedy was an ironist and never fell for his own mystique. Mr. Obama’s self-regard comes without irony—he himself now owns up to the “remoteness and detachment” of his governing style. We don’t have in this republic the technocratic model of the European states, where a bureaucratic elite disposes of public policy with scant regard for the popular will. Mr. Obama was smitten with his own specialness.

In this extraordinary tale of hubris undone, the Europeans—more even than the people in Islamic lands—can be assigned no small share of blame. They overdid the enthusiasm for the star who had risen in America.

It was the way in Paris and Berlin (not to forget Oslo of course) of rebuking all that played out in America since 9/11—the vigilance, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the sense that America’s interests and ways were threatened by a vengeful Islamism. But while the Europeans and Muslim crowds hailed him, they damned his country all the same. For his part, Mr. Obama played along, and in Ankara, Cairo, Paris and Berlin he offered penance aplenty for American ways.

But no sooner had the country recovered its poise, it drew a line for Mr. Obama. The “bluest” of states, Massachusetts, sent to Washington a senator who had behind him three decades of service in the National Guard, who proclaimed his pride in his “army values” and was unapologetic in his assertion that it was more urgent to hunt down terrorists than to provide for their legal defense.

Then the close call on Christmas Day at the hands of the Nigerian jihadist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab demonstrated that the terrorist threat had not receded. The president did his best to recover: We are at war, he suddenly proclaimed. Nor were we in need of penance abroad. Rumors of our decline had been exaggerated. The generosity of the American response to Haiti, when compared to what India and China had provided, was a stark reminder that this remains an exceptional nation that needs no apologies in distant lands.


A historical hallmark of “isms” and charismatic movements is to dig deeper when they falter—to insist that the “thing” itself, whether it be Peronism, or socialism, etc., had not been tried but that the leader had been undone by forces that hemmed him in.

It is true to this history that countless voices on the left now want Obama to be Obama. The economic stimulus, the true believers say, had not gone astray, it only needed to be larger; the popular revolt against ObamaCare would subside if and when a new system was put in place.

There had been that magical moment—the campaign of 2008—and the true believers want to return to it. But reality is merciless. The spell is broken.

Mr. Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is the author of “The Foreigner’s Gift” (Free Press, 2007).


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Carlos the Brand

The Jackal has a brand to protect.

Life for terrorists is improving in the U.S., with the Detroit bomber enjoying his right to remain silent and negotiate a plea bargain, while Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his Guantanamo mates head for a civilian trial. At least we can say America hasn’t gone as far as France to accommodate enemy combatants.

On Thursday, a court outside Paris will rule on a claim lodged by one Ilich Ramírez Sánchez. Better known as Carlos the Jackal, the 60-year-old Venezuelan was the Osama bin Laden of the 1970s and 1980s. On behalf of Palestinian and various Marxist-Leninist causes, Ramírez organized and carried out a series of notable terrorist attacks. The French finally nabbed him from a Sudanese hospital in 1994 and jailed him for life for the murder of two French policemen and a Lebanese informant. Carlos the Jackal now spends his time invoking his rights under the French constitution.

In the case before the court in Nanterre, he and long-time lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, who also married him, are suing a French production company for the right to review and “correct and edit” a forthcoming made-for-TV film about him entitled “Carlos.” Ms. Coutant-Peyre alleges the filmmakers are out to “demolish Carlos.” Her client wants to protect the intellectual property rights to his name and “biographical image.” The court has taken this case seriously enough to hear it.

A lawyer for the film company, Film en Stock, asked the Libération daily in Paris, “How could we possibly tarnish the image of Carlos when he himself claims to have killed some 2,000 people?” There’s also the small matter of a right to free press and speech that should, one would assume, shield the filmmakers from a litigious terrorist.

Still, the compatriot who Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez last year hailed as “a revolutionary soldier” may be on to something. Carlos has an experienced nose for the zeitgeist. How long can it be before some American lawyer tries to safeguard KSM’s “biographical image”?

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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Baby in court

At the centre of a recent custody battle in Sarasota County Circuit Court, Florida sat the exceptionally cute Eli. He is only 11-months old, still in nappies and does not understand the legal fight over him between James Casey and Virginia Valbuena. Of course, it’s always difficult for someone so young to understand litigation but for Eli it is especially challenging because he is a chimpanzee.

Eli has lived with Valbuena in Florida for most of his life. According to her, Eli is from a wildlife park in California. She says she collected him from his owners when they brought him over to a chimpanzee habitat in Missouri – a mutually convenient meeting place. Valbuena is training Eli for a Hollywood company.

However, Casey, who brought this legal action, claims that Eli was born on a chimpanzee habitat he used to run with his wife in Missouri – the same habitat from which Valbuena picked up her chimp.

In divorce proceedings, Casey’s wife had been ordered not to sell any of their animals but, Casey says, she violated that court order by selling Eli, who is worth $65,000, to Valbuena.

Chimpanzees do not have birth certificates and proving their parentage is difficult so Casey brought this action to obtain an order for Eli to be given a DNA test. Casey’s lawyer argued that “If it’s good for the state of Florida to execute people based on DNA evidence, I think its good enough to determine the lineage of this animal”.

An initial dispute arose about whether it would be okay for a chimpanzee to attend court. Valbuena promised that Eli would be well-behaved – apart from sleeping all he likes to do is kiss and cuddle. Valbuena said that lawyers would not be able to tell the difference between Eli and a baby “unless they looked closely”. In the event, Eli had to wait outside the court while people inside went ape.

The court heard that here were several reasons why Casey held a bona fide belief that Eli was his: the age and appearance of the chimp, and a previous business relationship between his ex-wife and Valbuena. Casey’s lawyer said that “the only way to be 100 per cent certain of the provenance of the animal is for the court to order a DNA test” and for the results to be compared with those of other chimpanzees in Missouri. That proposal was opposed by Valbuena’s lawyer on the basis that, unlike similar tests run by the Department of Revenue in child paternity cases, the potential for fraud in a chimp case would be “off the charts”.

Judge Roberts dismissed the case but said he was open to another application from Casey in future if more evidence was provided that Eli was his property. This case is not the first to involve a chimpanzee. One has even been a client. In a California case in 1999 a court agreed that a San Francisco lawyer could represent a chimpanzee called Moe – he is still much-loved in San Francisco for his fun, energy and cheeky manoeuvres, and so is the chimp.

Gary Slapper is Professor of Law at The Open University.


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Chávez Drops the Democracy Mask

Venezuela’s president promises ‘radical measures.’

Hugo Chávez likes to say that Venezuela is a democracy and that a majority of the electorate supports him and his “21st Century Socialism.” Or at least he used to make that claim. Last week the strongman gave up trying to maintain a democratic image.

Referring to nationwide civil protests—led by university students—he warned the country Thursday that if they “intensify” he is ready to take “radical measures.”

Given that the Chávez government already expropriates property at will, jails political opponents, polices prices, controls foreign currency exchange, seizes media outlets and fires rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators, his threat to turn “radical” is chilling. Venezuelans have reason to fear martial law.

Students demonstrate against Hugo Chávez in Caracas.

The Venezuelan economy is in a free fall and Mr. Chávez is in damage-control mode. One thing he can’t afford is to let Venezuelans complain without consequences. Successful dictators, like Fidel Castro, make dissent a dangerous proposition, and if Mr. Chávez is to survive he knows he must do the same. His plan starts with carrots and ends with sticks.

To use carrots Mr. Chávez needs money, and that’s why he announced a mega-devaluation of the bolivar on Jan. 8, taking it to an official rate of 4.3 bolivars to the dollar, from the previous 2.15. Importers of basic necessities (some foods and medicines) will still be able to buy dollars at 2.60, but for all other imported goods a dollar will now cost twice the prior rate. The net effect is that prices of “nonessential” imports doubled overnight.

This sounds like a raw deal, but not for the aspiring dictator. He has dollars because the state oil monopoly, PdVSA, is an exporter. Now when he sells those dollars he will get twice as many bolivars as he used to. Imagine what can be done with that gusher of funny money ahead of the Sept. 26 legislative elections. No need to worry about inflation either, according to Mr. Chávez. Businesses caught raising prices will be confiscated and turned over to the workers.

Students of chavismo will recognize that there’s nothing new here. The revolution is built on transfers to the struggling underclass, thus creating the illusion among the poor that their Bolivarian messiah is going to make them better off.

But this perpetual motion machine is losing steam. “It is possible,” one Venezuelan analyst told me, “to crunch the numbers and conclude that the ‘E’ class [the largest and poorest segment of society] has increased its bolivar income. But the quality of life for them has deteriorated greatly.”

Exhibit A is the violent crime rate, which is the highest in the hemisphere. The poor are suffering this epidemic disproportionately more than the rich because they aren’t able to purchase personal security. Public transportation is also failing the working class.

Because of its oil, natural gas, hydro and thermal resources, Venezuela ought not have a day of worry about its power supply. But after 11 years of Mr. Chávez’s “revolution” there is now rationing. Only Caracas has escaped rolling blackouts instituted last month, and that may not be for long.

Experts say that the main causes of the problem are poor planning for low water levels and poor maintenance at the Guri Dam, which generates the lion’s share of the country’s electricity. On the health-care front, the president himself declared last year that hospitals are in a state of emergency and that many of the small health clinics that he built and staffed with Cuban doctors have been abandoned.

Mr. Chávez’s base is disillusioned, and now he is going to try to make it up to them with more devalued bolivars. But with the black-market rate stubbornly stuck above six to the dollar, it’s clear that the government is not able to supply the market at 4.3.

In other words, the currency is even weaker than the new official rate reflects. This means that last year’s official inflation rate of 25% is not about to be tamed.

Only two things can save Hugo. One would be a new dollar windfall of oil revenue. This is why he conducted auctions for oil concessions with foreign companies last week, even though in the past he has condemned them. Just in case that doesn’t pan out, he’s putting the finishing touches on his police state. Last week he closed the independent cable network, Radio Caracas Television, and five other channels.

His move provoked the student marches, which have been met by heavily armed National Guard troops with shields, rubber bullets and tear gas. Now Mr. Chávez says the marches are part of an effort to overthrow him and that he is ready to get radical.

With Castro as his role model, it’s not hard to guess where he’s headed, oil or no oil. It is also increasingly clear that the September elections, run by the Chávez-controlled electoral council, will not offer Venezuelans a chance to vote in change.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Wall Street Journal


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Uncommon Knowledge

Sometimes high is sexy, sometimes low

When describing positions of relative status, people often use adjectives related to height, as in “top choice,” “up the food chain,” or “high end.” A recent study finds that this association even extends to judgments about the attractiveness of the opposite sex. Women rated pictures of men as more attractive when they were presented in the top half of a screen. Men, however, rated pictures of women as more attractive when they were presented in the bottom half of a screen. The authors see this as consistent with the evolutionary view that men prefer submissive mates, while women prefer dominant ones.

Meier, B. & Dionne, S., “Downright Sexy: Verticality, Implicit Power, and Perceived Physical Attractiveness,” Social Cognition (December 2009).

Dishonesty lurks in the shadows

It’s said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, but this insight may apply to more than just the disclosure of information. In several experiments, researchers found that light levels influence selfish behavior. People who were placed in a dimly lit room were significantly more likely to cheat than people placed in a well-lit room. Likewise, people who were asked to wear sunglasses were less generous in a sharing game than people who were asked to wear clear glasses. This pattern appears to be the result of an increased sense of anonymity in lower light levels, even though light levels did not confer any actual increase in anonymity.

Zhong, C. et al., “A Good Lamp is the Best Police: Darkness Increases Dishonesty and Self-Interested Behavior,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Exercising self-control

Self-control IS a key trait associated with success in life, so the obvious question to ask is whether (and how easily) self-control can be improved. New research suggests that it might be easier than we think. People were randomly assigned to try doing one of four possible tasks – avoid eating sweets; squeeze a handgrip, twice a day, for as long as possible; solve simple math problems a few minutes a day; or keep a diary recording any acts of self-control – over a two-week period. The researchers also administered a standard test of self-control both before and after the two-week period. The results indicated that the first two tasks, which take self-control to perform, yielded a significant increase in self-control. There was no effect for the other two tasks. Self-control, then, is a muscle that can be strengthened.

Muraven, M., “Building Self-Control Strength: Practicing Self-Control Leads to Improved Self-Control Performance,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

When calorie counts help business

In some jurisdictions, chain restaurants are now required to post calorie information on their menus. There’s an ongoing debate about whether the benefits of these regulations – especially in reducing the burden of obesity – outweigh the costs to business. Researchers at Stanford University were able to persuade Starbucks to hand over data on every transaction at their stores in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia around the time that New York City implemented its calorie-posting law. The researchers also obtained transaction data for a large sample of Starbucks cardholders during the same period and conducted in-store surveys in Seattle and elsewhere, around the time that Seattle implemented its own calorie-posting law. In New York City – as compared to Boston and Philadelphia where no such law went into effect – food purchases, but not beverage purchases, contained significantly fewer calories after the law went into effect, and even fewer calories for people who had previously consumed the most calories. The survey data found that customers had been overestimating calories in beverages and underestimating calories in food. Although one might expect the law to hurt business by reducing demand, the data showed no effect on Starbucks, and, in fact, Starbucks stores close to Dunkin’ Donuts actually gained some sales, perhaps because some customers of the latter were put off by the calorie content of doughnuts. Moreover, there was an increase in the average price per item purchased, suggesting that profitability increased, too.

Bollinger, B. et al., “Calorie Posting in Chain Restaurants,” National Bureau of Economic Research (January 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.


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Heated debate

Why shouldn’t a temperature be ‘warm’?

When the weatherperson predicts “warmer temperatures,” do your usage antennae quiver? Mine either – but some people do have a problem with such expressions. It’s a rare peeve, but a couple of weeks ago it popped up again, like a dormant virus newly revived and ready to spread.

The complaint appeared in a Montreal Gazette language column by Mark Abley, who had opened the floor to readers that week. One of them objected to the practice of TV forecasters who “speak of ‘warm,’ ‘mild,’ and ‘cold’ temperatures, rather than high, medium, and low ones.” Temperature is an index of heat or cold, he said, not something that can itself be “warm” or “cold.”

That’s not the only argument against “cooler temperatures” and the like. Bill Walsh addressed the point in his 2000 usage book, “Lapsing Into a Comma,” under the entry slow-speed chase. “The O.J. Simpson freeway parade was a low-speed chase, not a slow-speed chase. The concept of speed is inherent in the words slow and fast, so something is either slow or low-speed, either fast or high-speed. Other examples of this kind of redundancy include delicious taste, hot temperatures, and beautiful-looking.”

All very logical – but neither line of reasoning has made a dent in our actual usage. The first argument falters because temperature is not a technical word being misapplied by weather folks; it’s a general word adopted to a specific purpose. In the 16th century, says the Oxford English Dictionary, temperature could mean the act of tempering something, or “a middle course, a compromise,” or a person’s disposition or “temperament” – among other things. Even as a weather word, its first sense was not “degree of heat” but the relative mildness – temperateness – of a climate.

So when science adopted “temperature” as a measure of heat, in the 17th century, English speakers were already used to hearing the word in other senses as well. There was apparently no taboo against describing a temperature as hot, warm, or cold: A 1743 treatise on thermometers, quoted in the OED, writes of a system that “conceive[s] the middle temperature of the air as neither hot nor cold.”

Other scientists followed suit: A 1796 chemistry book says therapeutic water needs only to be “an hotter temperature than common water.” An 1841 medical journal speaks of the “cooler temperature of the human body.” And Charles Lyell, in “Principles of Geology” (1850 edition), writes of “a warmer temperature having prevailed in the eras of the Eocene, Miocene, and Pliocene formations.”

The second charge, that “warmer temperatures” is redundant, is no easier to prosecute. Yes, “temperatures will be hot” is redundant in the sense Walsh points out: The word hot already implies “temperature.” But English has never banned such redundancy, especially in the spoken language. Taste and fashion may outlaw some such expressions, but many others are our daily companions.

We’ve all been alerted, for instance, to the redundancy of “ATM machine” and “PIN number” (though we still may find them useful). But who wants to ban “12 noon” and “12 midnight”? (You don’t really need the 12.) “Faster speeds” has the same problem, but surely it’s standard English. Should we ban hairstyles of longer lengths, children of younger ages, servings in medium sizes?

In the case of weather terms, in fact, limiting ourselves to the “precise” language of high, medium, and low temperatures would leave us knowing less. We have a wealth of temperature adjectives – frigid, chilly, cool, mild, balmy, sizzling – all attuned to our local climate and our expectations with a subtlety that a forecast of “medium-high temperatures” can’t match. Call such phrases unscientific, call them redundant, avoid them if you like – but don’t imagine that English has ever considered them sins against the spirit of the language.

. . .

WHICH FORK? David Devore e-mailed recently to ask about a quote in a New York Times story on early bird specials: “It’s a great way to try a new restaurant without forking over a lot of money.”

To Devore, forking over is what a robber demands: Fork over the cash! – and paying a bill should be forking out. But my dictionaries treat fork over, fork out, and fork up as synonyms, all meaning “to hand over”; there may be local or individual preferences, but officially it’s OK to fork over, out, or up.

Some commentators give fork over a rakish past, deriving it from the old thieves’ slang to fork (someone), meaning to pick a pocket using two stiff fingers. But the OED treats the fork over family as simple extensions of the usual verb: you fork up a garden, fork over a mutton chop, fork out the rent. The word implies reluctance on the part of the forker, for whatever reason, but not necessarily coercion or threat by the forkee.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


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