Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A high-octane, adrenaline-fuelled thrill-ride!!!

Earlier this week I was indulging in a spot of channel-surfing (which the Chambers Dictionary delightfully defines as “to switch rapidly between different television channels in a forlorn attempt to find anything of interest”) and settled on one of the myriad reality programmes, in this case following a local police force on the beat. The synopsis proclaimed it as high-octane, which didn’t seem the best choice of adjective for footage of slightly over-weight police officers trying to chase teenage drug-dealers down the high street. But it got me thinking about this kind of muscular language that often gets bandied around when trying to engage with lad culture.

You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen it in the tag lines of blockbuster action films. You’ve seen it on the side of buses, in snippets of reviews for said films, usually directly followed by a ★★★★★ rating from a lad mag. It’s a school of film marketing that seems entirely based around convincing you that going to see this movie will provide the least comfortable two hours of your life. Words and phrases like relentless, mind-snapping, pulse-pounding, heart-thumping and breathless are more akin to post-traumatic stress than an average Friday night at the local Cineplex. One review of wrestler-slash-actor John Cena’s latest cinematic offering 12 Rounds warns “you’ll be picking shrapnel out of your eyeballs for weeks”. Great! A quick survey of reviews for the films of the genre’s poster boys, like Vin Diesel and Jason Statham, reveals a significant increase in usage for terms like adrenaline, steroids, explosive, raw and blistering.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that this is all figurative, and I’m not expecting any movie-goers to emerge from Crank 2 with third-degree burns or whiplash. It makes perfect sense that promotion of such material should reflect the content - many of these descriptions indeed being the adjectival equivalent of a six car motorway pile-up, or a beer-soaked bar fight spilling into an all-out street brawl. In fact, it’s probably a better indicator of what to expect from a film than the warnings issued by the British Board of Film Classification, my personal favourite being “Contains scenes of extended peril”. I can definitely see why the marketing department have opted for more colourful language to help them corral the demographic.

The Chambers Dictionary defines high-octane as “(of petrol) of high octane number and so of high efficiency”. If the intended result was for me to change channels as quickly as possible, then “Cops with Cameras” was most certainly efficient, and perhaps the description was fitting after all.

David Wark

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Thursday, 1 October 2009

A different kettle of fish

There are times when you switch on the radio and you are not sure if you are listening to the news or a cookery programme. Recent reports about police handling of public demonstrations make frequent use of the word ‘kettling’. Sadly, that this has nothing to do with having a nice cup of tea, but refers instead to the practice of containing protesters within a fixed area for a prolonged period.

The image works by viewing the energy of a seething mass of people as being analogous to the boiling water in a kettle. If the restricted area is maintained, the energy of the crowd will eventually be dissipated, and the protesters will then be allowed to disperse.

It may seem a surprising at first that a form of crowd control is named after a kitchen utensil. Then again, we might consider that every household has a kitchen, and so the things found in a kitchen are familiar, and we often explain new or unusual phenomena by comparing them to familiar objects.

It is certainly not the first time that a kitchen object has been called upon to give a name for something that has nothing to with cooking. The word stovepipe, for example, was borrowed to describe a tall silk hat of the kind favoured by Abraham Lincoln, while a panhandle is a thin strip of territory stretching out from the main body like the handle of a pan – as is found in the states of Oklahoma and Florida. Meanwhile, in the jargon of town planners the word pepperpotting has been coined to refer to the practice of sprinkling social housing among areas of private housing, so that lower earners are not herded together in large estates. Viewed in the light of these usages, the imagery of kettling is easier to understand.

Of course, some items of kitchenware have yet to acquire any metaphorical senses. The Chambers Dictionary does not yet record any interesting secondary uses of the words toaster or microwave oven – but perhaps there is still time.

Ian Brookes

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