This week, I was astonished to find a large Obama display in the local supermarket, selling copies of 2009 Barack Obama wall calendar: Words of Hope and Inspiration and a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle which looks like a cropped version of the President's official portrait.
There was nothing political in the supermarket prior to the inauguration. Possibly this represents a natural change in Obama's relationship to the nation. While in our moments of rational sophistication we know that a successful presidency depends on continual political calculation, we expect our presidents to at the same time transcend politics. We not only expect that, we assume that. In the space between those verbs, expect and assume, there is a world of difference.
So I have to say this made me a bit uncomfortable. I expect great things from this man, but turning a president into a civil religious fetish has got us into trouble, if recent memory serves. It's hard for a grumpy gadfly like me to tell exactly where the line between healthy enthusiasm and something a bit disturbing should be drawn. Which brings us to this week's word: otaku.
Looking over past Word Sommelier pieces, I find they have focused more on etymology than I originally intended. "Etymology" itself has an interesting etymology; it comes from the Greek etymos, "true", and logos, "word". It refers to a branch of scholarship which studies the origin of words, but the root sense of the world might be "true meaning".
Over time, the careless way we use words tends to erode their meaning. Terms that conveyed useful distinctions in the past tend to be less expressive in the present. Last week, we saw an example of words in the middle of this process of synonymization: "euphoria" and "mania". It's natural to triangulate the semantic course of a word to go back to it's original, or perhaps "true" meaning. The righteous officiousness of the self-appointed usage police comes from the conviction that if this trend continues unchecked, we'll end up being unable to do little more than grunt and point at things.
This would be true, except of course there is a process of word formation which counterbalances word erosion. The word formation process, however, does not proceed uniformly, either in history or geography. There are times, places, even events that are fonts of new words, such as the publication of the King James Bible, or the career of Shakespeare.
America through the eighteenth and nineteenth century was a rich source of lexigenesis. Many archaic words reentered English through provincial populations transplanted to America, such as burly (OE burlic noble, stately) and whittle (OE þwitan -- to cut). English settlers in the Americas were a channel for word borrowings, such wilt(possibly from Dutch), and squash (Narraganset askutasquash, lit. "something green that can be eaten raw"). 19th Century America was a lexical fantasia, generating countless colorful words and expressions that are mostly lost to us today: honeyfuggle (to physically display affection in public), belly-timber (food), shecoonery (ironic corruption of "chicanery"), or slantindicular ("oblique"). A few are still with us, such as skulduggery (possibly a corruption of the Scottish sculdudrie -- "adultery").
If we imagine words as a kind of cutting tool, then words tend to become dull over time. Borrowing from other languages provides us with new, sharp tools that fit the task at hand. The growing popularity of Japanese popular entertainment such as manga and anime is providing inroads for Japanese loan words, especially slang, which for reasons we shall see can be particularly trenchant (the O. Fr. trenchier is yet another word that has enjoyed a remarkable etymological career).
Otaku is a Japanese word that refers to one's house or family. Japanese slang, with cruel wit, has appropriated the term to people who perhaps stay at home too much, because of their obsessive interest in something like comic books, science fiction, or computers. Technically, this is what rhetoricians call metonymy: allusion through association. This provides a sharper alternative to the English word "fan", which originally was a contraction of "fanatic" but has worn into dull respectability over time.
One of the geniuses of the Japanese character seems to be a penchant for gradation, so if otaku is fandom at its most extreme then maniakku is perhaps a level of enthusiasm that, while overblown, is not actually creepy. One of the side benefits of a thousand years of reasonably widespread literacy is that changes in pronunciation create a wide field for wordplay. Female fans of popular entertainment who are fascinated by possible romantic relationships between male characters are called fujoshi, which in modern Japanese could mean one of two homophones, one of which means "respectable woman", the other of which means "rotten girl".
It's important to realize that all of these terms are in general usage perjorative. There is a well known proverb in Japan, that says "the nail that sticks up will be hammered down." This may account for the impressive way Japan produces eccentric personalities, and the unusual degree to which those eccentrics band together into pop culture movements, which are often viewed as disturbing or vulgar by those not in on the fun.
While the pluralistic West has its goths, the same impulse has generated a bewildering variety of styles and schools of eccentricity, in the same way that every art form has in Japan since the Edo era has generated schools and traditions handed down generation to generation with loving, fanatic care. The (bad) girls of Tokyo's Harajuku district have a style which either mixes lots of eye watering colors in layers, or goes to the other extreme like a Victorian widow in morning, teases the hair and/or colors it shocking colors, and dials the cute factor on accessories to 11. Ganguro fasion (which is a bit past its peak) goes in for deeply tanned complexion overlaid with white powder and lipstick, short shorts, halter tops, and hair any color but black: blonde, platinum, or red.
And then there is cosplay. Remember how your kids loved to dress up as Alice in Wonderland? Now imagine they never grew out of it. Oh, yes, we can't forget dolls and action figures (Figure moe zoku, the "figurine lover gang"). Comic books, animation, really anything that adults are supposed to grow out of has its own clan of otaku or maniakku which stubbornly refuse to do so.
None of this is respectable. Much of it is widely regarded as creepy. When there is a grisly murder (or better yet, serial murder), the Japanese media is quick to connect its perpetrator to the otaku phenomenon, as in the case of Tsutomu Miyazaki who is even popularly known as "The Otaku Murderer". The theory is that one kind of transgression must lead to another. But the otaku phenomenon is fundamentally different than whatever it is that leads people to commit gruesome murders. It seems almost certain that when somebody becomes a serial murderer, he will end up being an inconspicuous loner whose bizarre sickness festered in isolation. Otaku are anything but inconspicuous. But more importantly, otaku form tribes; it's a social phenomenon. If you are a nail that sticks up, then surely there is safety in numbers.
Now, the Word Sommelier is not an anthropologist. His office does not entitle him to special privileges as a social critic. But any thinking person surely must be a social critic. Every individual is ultimately a minority of one, so for anybody to have freedom, there has to be tolerance for diversity, even diversity that makes us a bit squeamish. For some people that might be sexual orientation. For others it is religious belief. For me, it is the popular apotheosis of politicians, even politicians I like. It just gives me the creeps. I realize that in part this is a by-product of hope, or that for some it is a precondition of hope. Just as some people love other people in other ways, and some people enjoy their hobbies in different ways, I share that hope, but in a different way.