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Streetplay gives semantic help to Safire

William Safire's Spread the word
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William Safire's "On Language" column in the New York Times magazine section has been a Sunday morning staple for decades. In his piece on 2/16/2003, he referred to Streetplay in a discussion of children's game terminology, specifically how the term ringoleavio isn't likely to be heard in political circles any time soon.

by William Safire

"Their job is not to play an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with Saddam," Prime Minister Tony Blair told Sir David Frost about the U.N. inspectors, "where they go in and try to find the weapons and he tries to hide them." The game metaphor was emblematic of a considered British government position, following Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's warning in the House of Commons that "the international community must maintain pressure on Saddam Hussein to end his games of hide-and seek."

"Hide-and-seek must have been well known before 1672," notes the Oxford English Dictionary, because the name of the game was used metaphorically by the poet John Dryden in its first citation: "'Sdeath, I begin to be weary of this hide-and-seek." A half century later, Jonathan Swift's character Lemuel Gulliver reported how the tiny Lilliputian children toyed with him: "The boys and girls would venture to come and play at hide-and-seek in my hair."

The game has the virtue of simplicity, with no need for equipment: one or more players hide, and when one yells, "All hid!" the others of the gang go looking for the hidden ones. (We know that the game was originally called all hid, because Shakespeare in his 1598 "Love's Labour's Lost" refers to "All hid, all hid, an old infant play," but some smart kid in the 17th century improved the name.) In American usage, another verb was added, and the name of the game, though not its metaphoric extension, is hide-'n'-go-seek.

America's Colin Powell also tried figure-skating on a figure of speech. "He's got to disarm," said our secretary of state in a suitably minatory tone, "and he's got to do it in a way that the inspectors don't have to go hunt and peck, looking for things."

Hunt and peck is not a game; rather, it is a description of a method of typing, the antonym of "touch typing." (Typing is not a synonym for racial profiling; it is the word once used to mean "operating a typewriter," which many now think of as a mechanical device used to print messages on the walls of prehistoric caves.) An early citation of hunt and peck can be found in a 1935 caption in The Times under a photograph of the humorist Will Rogers plunking away with a forefinger at one of these noisy marvels as he composed one of his frequent letters to the editor: "Will Rogers at work -- He used the hunt and peck system."

The origin, obviously, is in the way a chicken searches for food, snatching up kernels with a striking motion of its beak. By extension, the meaning has become "to search for laboriously rather than systematically," which is not precisely what Powell meant.

"Inspection is not a game of catch-as-catch-can," noted Hans Blix, the U.N.'s chief weapons inspector, in his interim report on Iraqi noncompliance last month. The meaning is "haphazard, unsystematic, hitor- miss," and its origin is in wrestling, a sport once dominated by men, in which one participant catches another in any way he can.

"I'll wrastle with any man for a good supper," goes a 1617 citation, " . . . catch that catch may." The Lancashire style of wrestling, an anything-goes variety with "no holds barred," was satirized in Samuel Foote's "Grand Panjandrum," a 1777 poem that concluded, "They all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can, till the gunpowder ran out at the heel of their boots." The sexual analogy to wrestling was used by James Joyce in a 1912 poem: "The poor and deserving prostitute/Plays every night at catch-as-catch-can/With her tight-breeched British artilleryman."

"Keep in mind that the inspectors are not in the country on a scavenger hunt for weapons" was the sportive formulation of Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, eager to differentiate his trope from the hunt and peck of his boss. This homey word-picture was quickly picked up by the writers of President Bush's State of the Union address: "The 108 U.N. weapons inspectors were not sent to conduct a scavenger hunt," Bush told Congress, "for hidden materials across a country the size of California."

A scavager was a 16th-century street cleaner. An n intruded itself into the word, on the analogy of messenger and passenger, to make it easier for speakers like Bush to pronounce. The word soon gained a sinister connotation: Scavenger's Daughter was an iron hoop used as an instrument of torture in the Tower of London during the reign of Henry VIII, a corruption of the name of the chief torturer, Skevington. A scavenger crab is one that feeds on decaying, dead fish.

The odious meaning of the word was transformed by a legendary partygoer and hostess in 1933. "One of the features of the benefit," went the Times account of "an unusual entertainment," was "the scavenger hunt arranged by Miss Elsa Maxwell. Couples entering the hunt will leave the ballroom at 9:30 o'clock to search for objects hidden at specified points in Manhattan. Prizes will be awarded after midnight." The pre-jet set found it to be a lot of fun, and a phrase for "a merry search" was born.

What other innocent games are to be used to describe the search for guilty parties' weapons of mass destruction?

Here's one familiar to kids, as yet unuttered by diplomats: ringoleavio. "One team would be the hunters, one team would be hunted," explains, a Web site that covers such urban sports as scully [sic], hopscotch and stoopball. "If a hunter grabbed you and said, 'Ringoleavio one, two, three,' then you were . . . held captive until the end of the game -- or if you were freed." I well remember, on Manhattan's 92nd Street and West End Avenue, slipping up to the "jail" and yelling, "Home free!" setting my captured teammates off in all directions and turning the tide.

War and peace is no game of nations. But just as kids play a simple card game called war and heave football "bombs," grown-up statesmen and warriors borrow the happy terminology of children.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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