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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.

Originally posted to grumpynerd on Mon Feb 02, 2009 at 02:41 PM PST.


When it comes to Obamamania, I am:

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Comment Preferences

  •  The Kirk-Spock fan fic thing (10+ / 0-)

    seems to me much like the fujoshi phenomenon.

    My theory is that the attraction of this kind of homoerotic fantasy for women is that it provides a model of sexual and romantic love which isn't somehow confounded with cultural notions of the supremity of the male sex.   After all, who better to represent one who feels alienation, than an alien?

    I've lost my faith in nihilism

    by grumpynerd on Mon Feb 02, 2009 at 02:35:36 PM PST

    •  I could argue with you about this (0+ / 0-)

      That said, I won't. :) I will leave it at there is a lot of subtext in society and sometimes supertext that some people (whether it's fujoshi or gay/bi guys) read one way and straight people who'd never think along those lines because they've never needed to/wanted to would see entirely another way. :) Neither way is bad or good or the one true way, and the sooner peeps learn that the less drama there will be :)

      Deyama Toshimitsu! You broke my gaydar! I demand a replacement at once!

      by MiscastDice on Mon Feb 02, 2009 at 09:09:20 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Oh, why not? (0+ / 0-)

        Argue?  Whether or not you should depends on whether you enjoy debate in the same way that, say, Dick Cheney enjoys hunting.

        What you should know is that my detailed knowledge of Western Civilization pretty much ends with Freud. From my standpoint, the ability of psychoanalysis to generate a self-consistent explanation for anything transformed intellectualism from an enjoyable parlor game into something inexpressibly tedious.  Postmodernism holds little more attraction.  It's not that I'm intellectually hostile towards postmodernism, it's just that for an intellectual living fossil like me,  arguing on postmodernist terms is like going to a party where everybody but you is smoking weed.

        Now with respect to the whether the Kirk-Spock thing is a kind of self-conscious transgression (or perhaps I should say whether it is constructed on some kind of cultural meta-level) I'm not entirely sure how to falsify a statement like that, which pretty much leaves a relic like me up the the rhetorical creek without a proverbial paddle.  I certainly wouldn't deny that transgression has its attractions qua transgression.  This language expresses concern which is orthogonal to the kinds of things I'm interested in.  

        What I am interested in is the nature of fantasy, what in the old fashioned sense of the word would be its virtues.  By "old fashioned" you should understand I mean Middle English ca. 1200, in which the etymological relationship of the word to "virile" was more evident.   What concerns me is the power of fantasy to act in the subjective arena of the imagination.  That widely shared fantasy is the outcome of some sort of social process I take for granted.  

        That the relationship of that process to the product is a necessary concern of professional scholars I accept as reasonable, in the same way that I accept that the relationship of organic chemistry, biochemistry and chemical engineering is of special concern to pharmaceutical manufacturers.  Still, it is is the resultant virtues of a medicine which concern me directly as a non-specialist, although I'm sure pharmaceutical scientists would consider me criminally ignorant of the most elementary foundations of their field.

        I've lost my faith in nihilism

        by grumpynerd on Tue Feb 03, 2009 at 05:52:52 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Very interesting n/t (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wee Mama, nio, jlms qkw, smellybeast
  •  All I need (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wee Mama, jlms qkw

    is for folks to stop saying "I could care less," when what they clearly mean is "I couldn't care less," and I'll be a happy man.
    Okay, I'll never be happy.  But I'll be a less ornery man.

    Rush Limbaugh is shovel ready.

    by jazzmaniac on Mon Feb 02, 2009 at 02:55:19 PM PST

    •  It's annoying, isn't it? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      When I was younger, I thought I had some kind of special anti-talent when it came to learning languages.   Over the years, I think it is because of my fondness for logic.

      The problem with language is that it is tantalizingly close to being logical as it could possibly be without actually being so.     The mathematician in me sneers at "I could care less", which logically means that you care more than is strictly necessary.  But language really isn't logical.   Where language comes from is mysterious, but with few exceptions when somebody opens their mouth what comes out is not the product of rigorous logical introspection.

      When language actually is logical, or even better logical in a different way it's a kind of charming bonus.     For example, in Spanish you don't say, "I lost something" you say , "me ha perdido", which if you dissect it grammatically  really amounts "it lost itself on me."   That certainly expresses the subjective experience of, say, misplacing your keys.

      I've lost my faith in nihilism

      by grumpynerd on Mon Feb 02, 2009 at 04:42:27 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Actually, "I could care less" is correct (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      It is the original expression, which was intended to be sarcastic.  As in, "I COULD care less, but it would be exceedingly difficult to do so."

      •  That's an interesting theory. (0+ / 0-)

        As T.E. Hulme once noted, "Prose is a museum where all the old weapons of poetry are kept."

        This could be a case of an ironic expression that has become so commonplace it's lost it's stylistic sense.  It is, at the very least, awkward.

        The clearest, non-idiomatic way to express what is intended is "I care as little as possible."   The phrase "I could not care less" is an example of litotes. The term "litotes" is sometimes used to identify rhetorical understatement, but really it refers to a specific, ironic way of understating, which is to assert something by denying it's opposite.  An example might be "'Litotes' is a word you don't hear every day," to mean "'Litotes' is an uncommon word."

        So to say, ironically that "you could care less" is to pile irony on top of an already ironic device.   This double helping of irony can be confusing.

        Now longtime readers of the Word Sommelier know that he does not consider it his office to forbid, and is seldom prone to chastise.   Rather he advises on how to select and use even the squalid refuse of language with the greatest feasible clarity and elegance.  Therefore, he would never proscribe using an expression with a double layering of irony, but rather prescribe where and when it is best used.

        The problem with the way people use "could care less" is that it is offhand, as befits a contemptuous dismissal, but unfortunately not an extremely complex confection of irony. To use "could care less" with clarity, one's manner should be extravagantly saucy and waggish.   In offhand dismissal the simple litotes "couldn't care less" serves with greater clarity and elegance.

        I've lost my faith in nihilism

        by grumpynerd on Tue Feb 03, 2009 at 06:21:11 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  very informative article. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Wee Mama, jlms qkw

    keep it up, ya done good.

  •  Delightful, as always. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jlms qkw

    I suspect the jigsaw was possible because government-produced materials don't have copyright (they belong to all of us). The calendar is another question - I don't know if the brief quotes needed for a calendar could be done without Obama's permission or whether he would get royalties.

    Folks who enjoy words might like my George Carlin diary ---

  •  At least (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    nzanne, jlms qkw

    those ads for the weird painted Obama coins have stopped. I worked endless weekend hours to get the man elected so we could fix the nation's problems, not so some crook could make a fortune off the poor.


    •  It doesn't seem all that different to me (0+ / 0-)

      from something like a coronation mug.   The scolding "small R republican" in me wants to chastise people for turning the presidency into some kind of quasi monarchy.    The cultural snob in me decries the garish vulgarity of painting a coin.

      But...  The inauguration was one hell of an historical milestone, wasn't it?  Not so much history itself, but more like a hallmark, a seal representing the hand of generations of Americans who fought to make America a better place.

      I have a feeling that people who bought the coin, to be proudly displayed in their home to show that they were the generation that saw this happen ... I have a feeling that even if the coin is cheap mass produced junk, they've somehow got their money's worth.

      And, after all, all those classical Greek statues and buildings were actually painted in their day.  Our notion that surface decoration is somehow artistically superficial as well is a product of erosion.

      I've lost my faith in nihilism

      by grumpynerd on Mon Feb 02, 2009 at 04:32:42 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Actually, it wasn't the painting that bothered me (0+ / 0-)

        as much as the fact we're putting the man on coins ALREADY. I want to enjoy and celebrate his administration, as well as his inauguration (my feet still hurt from standing for eight hours on frozen gravel) and election.

        The Greek (and Roman) custom of painting statues, as you well know, didn't stop there. They also painted their buildings, much as the Victorians did.


  •  Thanks for the intellectual contribution... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    nzanne, jlms qkw, smellybeast

    It's much appreciated!

    "People of Berlin - people of the world - this is our moment. This is our time." - Barack Obama

    by Blue Liberty on Mon Feb 02, 2009 at 03:29:09 PM PST

  •  You've been diary rescued, and I'm glad. (0+ / 0-)

    Great diary, great subject. I couldn't vote though because I didn't understand 'kawaii' vs. 'kowai'.

    My personal grouse is the all encompassing 'lay' vs. 'lie'. "He is just laying there on the bed, you know, like a sack of potatoes."


    I have recently moved to Auckland, where there's a significant population of young Asian women at uni. The whole fascination with teddy bears and panda bears and stuffed toys is kind of weirding me that 'cosplay' or merely 'otaku'??

    •  Neither (0+ / 0-)

      I'd say it's a fashion trend or collecting :)

      Deyama Toshimitsu! You broke my gaydar! I demand a replacement at once!

      by MiscastDice on Mon Feb 02, 2009 at 09:05:30 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  "kowai" and "kawai" (0+ / 0-)

      Sorry, I meant to get to those words, but the diary was as long enough as it was.

      "Kawai" is one of the words used for "cute"; it has a connotation of "childish", but one man's childishness is another's youthfulness.   I chose "kawai" becuase Obama,  although he is a full year older than Clinton was when he took office, seems more youthful to me.   Of course, I'm older now so it could be a difference in perspective.

      "Kowai" means "creepy".

      I've lost my faith in nihilism

      by grumpynerd on Tue Feb 03, 2009 at 05:03:47 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you for the post (0+ / 0-)

    As a little bit of clarification, the Harajuku girls are usually ganguro, some variant of gyaru, or (the Victorian-looking ones) Elegant Gothic Lolita or Sweet Lolita.

    The punks and visual keis, from all I hear, tend to hang out in other areas. Same as in the US: you wouldn't generally find, say, hardcore metallers in the same club as you'd find, say, Britney Spears fans. The Japanese scene does have those distinctions as well, hell, even some of the black metal peeps would now consider being called "visual kei" an insult because they're too hardcore for it, and same for some of the poppier types, because it's too hardcore for them. :)

    Deyama Toshimitsu! You broke my gaydar! I demand a replacement at once!

    by MiscastDice on Mon Feb 02, 2009 at 09:13:28 PM PST

  •  Otaku (0+ / 0-)

    Actually, I thought otaku meant "your honorable house" and it came to be associated with geeky fans because they spoke to each other in stilted, hyper-formal old-fashioned phrases, and otaku was one of the words they used a lot. This was in marked contrast to mainstream Japanese youth culture, where everyone talks in very informal Japanese, with lots of slang terms. Of course, the otaku had to know this, and there had to be an ironic aspect to their using very formal Japanese as their own slang.

    Now it's become less of a pejorative term because Japanese pop culture has become so successful. Everyone has a little bit of interest in manga or anime or figurines. The otaku with their enthusiasm and expertise in pop culture are helping the Japanese economy.

    I would recommend checking out the movie Densha Otoko (Train Man) about a geeky guy in Tokyo. It's very sweet, and the opening sequence in Akihabara is awesome.

    It's also worth looking at ukiyo-e, the cheap mass-produced woodblock prints of 100 to 300 years ago. Many of them are lurid or fantastic, in a wonderfully geeky way. There isn't that much of a difference between the otaku in modern Akihabara and the people who lived and played in the shitamachi ("shta-machi", literally under-town) that used to be there.

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