Today was an interesting day, sesquiotically, for a couple of reasons. For one, I went to see Umberto Eco in conversation with Michael Enright at the Metro Reference Library. Eco didn’t look as he usually does (quite something how my various longstanding idols manage to have changed their appearances when I actually get to see them): he had only a moustache, not the beard that gives him such an air in his photos. But he was still Umberto Eco, and witty. When Enright asked why he had such a fascination with stupidity, he replied, “With normal intelligence, you have two plus two equals four. That’s it, finished. Stupidity is infinite!”
Eco, author of The Open Work (Opera Aperta), certainly doesn’t think that literary texts are quite 2+2=4; there is a good deal of room for the reader’s participation. But not an infinite amount! He declared that he could not be held accountable for the perversity of readers if they, for instance, wanted to take his latest book, The Prague Cemetery, as an incitement to anti-Semitism simply because it follows – in a very unflattering light – an anti-Semite. In my turn at the question mike, I asked him about his view on whether there was a definable line one could draw between acceptable and unacceptable perversity of the reader. He didn’t give a nuanced answer – given the context and that he was not speaking Italian, this is understandable – but he was certainly of the position that some things are insupportable by the text: “There is participation and then there is stupidity.”
Now, language is all participation. Linguistics does what it can to be scientific, but language is a very involved group creation that is never entirely fixed – it keeps changing, and even at any one time a word or expression can have so many different nuances of sense. One needs only to look at the very common “production errors” people make to get a sense of how speaking can be like a game show where you have to take live fish from a bucket and stuff them into labelled slots on a moving wall against the clock. But there are cases where the existing structures and lexicon, communally created though they may be, just don’t support a usage.
This is loosely related to the second reason today was an interesting day, sesquiotically. It has to do not with a disastrous syntactic excursion but rather with a lexical innovation. Certainly many people get worked up quite readily at some lexical innovations or perceived innovations; generally I will strive to be the moderate voice and take a descriptive approach in these matters. But sometimes I do find myselve stopping, stepping back, and gaping momentarily.
Imagine, for instance, that you had a word for X, and you needed a word for X+1, so you modified the word for X to suit. Well and good. But how about if you now decided that you needed a word for (X+1)–1? Would it make sense just to use the word for X? You would think so. But it seems that, just as for some people 2+2–2≠2, for some people (X+1)–1 calls for something other than X.
So anyway, here’s the second reason, a headline from a story on page E1 of the November 16 Toronto Star: “A two-peat for literary star Patrick de Witt”.
I can’t lay the creation of two-peat at the feet of the entertainment columnist or other headline writer for the Star. It’s been around for a bit. UrbanDictionary.com has an entry for it from 2009: “To repeat for the second time in a row; usually used in sports.”
A triad of things here. First, winning the Governor General’s Award is literature, not sports, and various people will feel variously about the application of a sporting approach to literary reporting. Second, it may seem ironic that an article on literature would use two-peat rather than repeat or another well-accepted usage. Third, isn’t repeating for the second time in a row a three-peat?
Three-peat is, of course, the X+1 here. In sports, where there is an obsession with dynasties and winning and losing streaks and so on, winning something significant three times in a row merits a good word. If the second championship for a team was a repeat, well, the third is a three-peat. Sure, why the heck not. The word has been around for about a quarter of a century already. And four-peat is a natural extension too, not quite as cute because four doesn’t rhyme with re as three does, but still.
So anyway, you win. Then you repeat. Then, the second repetition, you have a three-peat. But a two-peat? Who would take a two-peat to be the same as a three-peat? Not the Toronto Star; the GG Award is de Witt’s second big win this season. And, really, a two-peat must be one less than a three-peat, no? Like an echo: you shout, it repeats. That’s two. Eccolà.
But then, what the heck would a one-peat be?
I’ll tell you what it would be: a sarcastic term referring to an unfulfilled ambition to repeat. That’s what I see in the few uses of it I’ve found on the web. Could it be used without sarcasm? Um. Heh. Is 2+2–2 equal to 2 or not? See Eco above.
Nor do I have a great taste for two-peat. It has its potential, to be sure, as a derisive indicator of an incomplete three-peat, and as a Shakespearean pun: “Two-peat or not two-peat?” But otherwise, really, for peat’s sake. I mean Pete’s. I beg you. I petition you. I petition you twice (bis repetita placent) – I make a two-petition. Would that be a two-peat?
Hm. Maybe I should just follow Google’s lead on this. Search two-peat and you get sports, but search one-peat and you get Scotch. The nice peaty kind. Of which I have a few bottles around. If I can’t scotch two-peat, I can still have two peaty Scotches.