Over the top

Published : Nov 19, 2004 00:00 IST

Over the top, derived from First World War trench-warfare usage, has replaced way out of line as a derogation of excess.

"THEY just sic the attack dogs out there," complained Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington, about the Bush campaign. "I think it's kind of over-the-top relentless."

Republicans returned fire, claiming that John Kerry's blasts at the Bush administration were over the top (not hyphenated when not used as a compound adjective).

Over the top, derived from First World War trench-warfare usage, has replaced way out of line as a derogation of excess. Out of control has a nice imputation of madness but is losing popularity, and two sports terms - out of bounds (from basketball) and over the line (from tennis) - are pass, though boxing's below the belt still evokes the metaphoric wince.

Of Standard English adjectives, extreme, which had a good run just before and after Barry Goldwater's 1964 "extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice," has lost much of its zing because of overuse. Excessive is bookish; uncalled-for, undue and unwarranted are weak; intemperate is limited to judges and inordinate to demands. Outrageous and unconscionable sound suitably angry but are hard to spell.

Who frequents that over-the-top space? That brings us to:

"VICE-PRESIDENTIAL candidates serve as attack dogs," a Kerry adviser determined to conceal his identity told The Times, adding this concern about Senator John Edwards in that role: "Our vice-presidential candidate was picked for his sunny optimism. He self-consciously eschewed negativity during his own campaign. Consequently, he doesn't make for the most effective attack dog."

The political use of this metaphor dates to 19th-century cartoons, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Centre. The lexicographer David K. Barnhart writes in The National Post of Canada, "The term attack dog may have been influenced... by attackman (1940) in such team sports as lacrosse." The earliest use I can find is from a 1976 Washington Post article by Myra MacPherson: "Columnists were painting [Bo] Callaway as a sort of attack dog, with [President Gerald] Ford giving the orders."

What verb is used to induce an attack dog to do its thing? Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, was popped last month by a Times editorial for having "sicced federal agencies on runaway Democratic lawmakers". That is derived from the command sic 'em! - a mongrelisation of "seek them" - and has appeared in our language as, "He doesn't know sic'm from c'mere."

But the past tense presents a problem. Sicced, as used above, looks funny, but sicked (extending the ic with a k on the analogy of politicked) suggests "made ill". This is a verb best used in the present tense.

KERRY PARTISANS have denounced the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who dispute the Democratic candidate's Vietnam heroism, as attack dogs financed by Bush partisans. Exemplifying the conflict of recollections in the "fog of war" (a rough translation of a coinage by Karl von Clausewitz) is this column's search for the origin of the term Swift boat.

Is it rooted in a hummingbird-like bird called the swift? Or is it from the adjective swift, synonymous with "fast"? Or does the 50-foot U.S. Navy patrol vessel bear a Pentagonian acronym?

In my initial exploration, I cited Tour of Duty, Douglas Brinkley's book about Lt. John Kerry's service in Vietnam. He wrote that the name was a Pentagon moniker for "shallow water inshore fast tactical craft". Brinkley informs me that his source was a 2002 book by Michael P. Kelley, Where We Were in Vietnam, and supplied me with Kelley's useful glossary. Is the source reliable? Reached in Sacramento, Kelley says: "I must have pulled it from something, probably an Internet site. Wherever I got it, I sure didn't make it up. It may be an informal acronym. Whether that was a formal acronym of the Navy, I don't know, but I don't think so." He says that the more formal initials were P.C.F., for "patrol craft, fast". (That is initialese, not an acronym forming a word.)

Thus the matter - clearly sourced by the historian Brinkley to an acceptable level, but without the original source - remains fuzzy, like so many conflicting memories of decades ago. Until a hard contemporaneous citation comes along, the Swift boat name remains "origin obscure".

SERENDIPITOUSLY, I discover in Michael P. Kelley's glossary a definition of a 1967 Super Gaggle as a "Special U.S. Marine Corps tactic created to overcome voluminous and accurate ground and antiaircraft fire thrown at helicopters".

Since that time, gaggle - without a prefix - has come to mean "a small group of journalists gathered around a news source". The originator was probably Dee Dee Myers, press secretary to President Bill Clinton early in his administration. She recalls, "People would mill around in the common area outside my office, and at some point in the first year I called it the gaggle, and then Dave Leavy kind of institutionalised it by referring to it to other staffers and the press as the gaggle."

Myers resolutely denies that her term was intended to compare reporters to a flock of geese. The collective gaggle was coined around 1470 as "A gagyll of ghees A gagyll of women," but the antifeminist connotation seems no longer to apply. However, the new meaning of gaggle ties in to a newly popular prefix to suggest a fresh coinage:

The prefix super has had its day - just as Clark Kent's changing-room telephone booth has been made obsolete by cellphones - trumped by hyper, then mega and now giga. Tomorrow, we can expect a large gathering of reporters - as at a presidential news teleconference linking the East Room to thousands of newsrooms around the world - to be called a gigagaggle.

New York Times Service
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