Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Real Ardil 22 — Tomatoes, Desmond and Usage Creep

Tomato Nation has an interesting post up in which a reader asks whether Lost writers correctly used the expression "Catch 22" in last week's episode. As it was titled "Catch 22," one would hope it would have.

The installment centered on Desmond having a psychic vision about his lady love—Penelope, a missus who’s been waiting for her sea-faring mister nearly as long as her Homeric namesake did. Though Desmond foresees Penelope parachuting onto the island, the happy reunion only comes after Charlie's bloody death by neck wound on the walk to fetch her. Desmond, who has been predicting Charlie's death for some time now, worries that altering the future and sparing Charlie will result in not seeing Penelope—or, worse, catching her as she falls from the sky but finding that she has died. (You never know how the future will re-write itself, but it's a sure bet that it will punish the person who altered it.) It's clearly a tough choice, but is it a Catch 22 as the expression is strictly used?

Sarah Bunting and her various sources agree that it’s not. A true Catch 22 should involve a situation in which a person cannot solve a problem without overcoming an obstacle inherent in the original problem. As Bunting puts it, you can’t cure your debilitating disease without getting health insurance to afford the treatment, yet you can’t get a job that would grant you health insurance because you have a debilitating disease. Strictly speaking, Desmond’s problem is more a Sophie’s Choice, which Bunting also mentions in her post. True, Desmond can’t apparently rescue Penelope without letting Charlie die. But for all he knows, letting Charlie live won’t prevent Penelope from arriving safely. Also, he’s not bound from taking any action by the problem. The episode continues to advance despite his confoundedness. Ultimately, he just has to pick one over the other. (For the non-Losers among us, Desmond saves Charlie and the woman who falls from the sky is beautiful, Portuguese and named Naomi. Curse you, fates!)

The phenomenon I find really interesting here, however, is the notion of usage creep, or the tendency for words and phrases to take on different meanings over time, generally moving from a specific definition to a broader one. (Less commonly, the reverse happens — like “wench,” which used to denote any old girl but now implies the kind who serves you beer then screws you in the men’s room and steals your wallet at some point in the middle.) The notion of “Catch 22” meaning “a no-win situation” or “a tough choice” is fairly frequent now, just as is usage of “ironic” to mean “coincidental” or “random” to mean whatever the hell they want.

Usage creep isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (I must admit, however, that using “electrocuted” to mean “shocked” annoys me a little. Etymologically, the word should imply death, as it’s a rather tasteless portmanteau for “electric” and “execute.”) Words shift over time and it’s rather egocentric to think that the definition we’re accustomed to using for a given word must be the right one from this moment in time forward. (For those of you keeping track, we’re in the timeline fragment in which Desmond let Charlie live, by the way.) On the other hand, I’d wager that part of the reason language changed so much is many cultures only began writing their words down fairly recently. Making a near-permanent record on a piece of paper should help to lock the meaning and spelling for longer.

But this raises an interesting question — and yes I said “question,” not “Catch 22,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “paradox” or anything else. When, then, do we give in to the natural evolution of word’s definition to something new and when to we pull out the dictionary and wave it in somebody’s face like a jerk?

And it's with a small chuckle that as I write this I'm drinking green tea that is actually purple in color.

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