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"Prose is a museum where all the old weapons of poetry are kept." -- T.E. Hulme

Words often possess latent power, but that power is wasted in careless use. The most potent source of word power is metaphor.  The very word "metaphor" itself is metaphorical:  it's Greek roots mean "to carry over". Metaphors do the heavy lifting (as it were) of persuasion.

This week, we will examine a common word that is almost exclusively used metaphorically.  We will examine that metaphor in hopes of harnessing its power more effectively.

This week's word is "travesty"

Credit for this week's word goes to Desert Rose's diary, in which she eloquently recounts the immigration abuse of one of her friends.   This poignant diary elicited "Travesty of Justice" in droves.

A "travesty" is, literally, a kind of comic play that mocks a more serious work.  One might be tempted to compare it to satire, but that wouldn't be quite right.  A satire uses mockery to make a point.  It uses humor to bring throw a light on stupidity and abuse that is hidden by pretense.   One would never say anything like "satire of justice".

"Travesty" as an art form belongs within the broader class of "parody".   A parody (Gr. "para" -- alongside + "odie" -- song) mocks another work by caricature, repeating and enhancing certain of that work's characteristics with such exaggeration that they become funny.  Of course, many parodies are satirical, but the characteristic humor of travesty is not particularly useful for satirical effect.   Travesty uses simple exaggeration to make its target appear grotesque or repulsive.  A satire must make some sort of sense, but travesty can trade on the shock value of associating its victim with coarse and transparent venality, or gross sexual or scatological acts, whether doing so makes sense or not.  Travesty evokes the vulgar pleasure of seeing the respectable pilloried.

"Travesty" is related to the English word "transvestite" (c. 1910); they both come from the Latin "trans" and "vestire" -- literally to cross dress.  Cross dressing was the norm in theater from ancient times up through the Elizabethan era, since actors were exclusively men. The theatrical term for this was to stage a piece "en travesti".  "Travesty" clearly must be related to "en travesti", yet it enters the language in the closing years of the 1600s, when en travesti staging was falling into disuse.  According to some sources, the earliest usage referred to cross dressing as a plot device in which a character disguises his or her identity.   Portia, in The Merchant of Venice, uses precisely this device, and so the audience at the Globe would be treated to the spectacle of a male actor cross dressing as a female character cross dressing as a man.  

Still, judging by modern travesties (as staged by groups like Harvard's Hasty Pudding) it seems plausible that once women began to play female roles, male performers wouldn't take long to discover and exploit the transgressive shock value of transvestitism and skirting depiction of homosexual behavior.

As a side note, while male to female cross dressing is perceived as bawdy or lewd, female to male cross dressing for some reason is not.  In opera, a "breeches part" is a male part (typically an adolescent like Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro)  that is sung by a female.  The effect is usually considered charming.   There is a considerable world literature on actual or legendary cross dressing female war heroines, such as Jeanne D'Arc (France), Hua Mulan (China), or Deborah Sampson (US), and there is not a hint of disreputability around these stories . Examples of bawdy literary use of female cross dressing do exist (e.g., Gordon Bok's The Handsome Cabin Boy), but it is only male cross dressing that is considered sexually crude per se.   So "travesty" is strongly associated with the same implication of shocking vulgarity that, rightly or wrongly, haunts male cross dressing.

Which brings us to "travesty of justice".  Clearly the image is that of injustice acting out mocking obscenities while dressed up as its opposite.

This is an extremely pointed metaphor, worn dull by overuse.  It comes readily, even mindlessly to our lips when we disapprove of some legal abuse.  Such a powerful metaphor should never appear to be used casually.  When we use this metaphor, we should hold very clearly in our mind the obscenity, vulgarity and deception of what we are condemning, and drive those characteristics home with force and precision.

Harsh, politically motivated immigration practices are a perfect fit.  They are deceptive in that they do little or nothing to advance their ostensible purpose.  They are obscene (repulsive and offensive to an extraordinary degree) in that they inflict outlandish punishments on people with no reasonable justification.  And they are vulgar (crude, boorish, appealing to ill-breeding) because they invite people to indulge their bigoted, xenophobic passions using cruelty by proxy, to be administered on nameless victims in out of the way places by unidentified agents of the state.

Desert Rose links to an clear example of an immigration related "travesty of justice".  Officials of the United States Government withheld diagnostic and cancer treatment from Mr. Hiu Lui Ng, an immigrant whose only crime was to overstay a tourist visa while applying for refugee status.  As a result, Mr. Ng died a painful and possibly unnecessary death.  Such callous administrative manslaughter is unquestionably obscene.    As retribution for his supposed crime, even the forced deportation of Mr. Ng (who had a valid marriage to an American citizen) would have been indecently immoderate.  Withholding medical treatment from a man whose crime is so trivial goes beyond the bounds of mere indecency.  Medical treatment is the human right of any person in our custody, even the worst criminal.

And as for deception, the government's actions amount to nothing more than pointless brutality.  Even if Mr. Ng had not been sick, the things the government intended to do would have accomplished nothing. Security experts have coined a new phrase to describe this characteristic post 9/11 phenomenon: "security theater".  "Security theater" is when the government performs conspicuous but pointless acts in order to convince the public that it is "doing something" about security.

It is unusual for the Word Sommelier to dwell on such somber and sobering events.   Mockery is more often his stock in trade.  The office of the Word Sommelier, as he hopes all his readers know, is to make his clients' word choices  more stress-free and fun. But above all, it is his mission to make word choices more effective.   Angry words should scald.  Indignant words should confound.  Words of outrage should mortify.    We shouldn't simply reach into the bag of common rhetorical maledictions and hurl the first piece of muck that comes to hand.  Sometimes we want words that do more than stick to; we want words that will stick in. Sometimes we want words that can draw blood.  

The sharp point of this metaphor is this: A travesty of justice is when a person performs false, obscene and vulgar acts in the name of justice.

Originally posted to grumpynerd on Fri Aug 15, 2008 at 11:37 AM PDT.

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