Sunday, April 29, 2007

Edit the big names too

How do you get to and from work if your assignment is to edit Bill Safire? I mean, do you wear Groucho glasses and kind of sneak from doorway to doorway all the way to Times Square? And when people ask what you do at work, do you tell 'em you steal coins from blind guys' cups? It's got to be tough any week, but especially when he's just making stuff up and tossing it out there as if folks were supposed to believe it.

As is sort of the case this week. Bill, apparently still wondering about the origin of the term "fall guy," starts by referring to his own prose, then opens the floor to whoever else has a guess. The results are about what you'd expect. At least he labels it honestly: "Now to the speculations."

As a copy editor, at this point, you might just be looking for a vein to cut (of yours, not his). But some of the sillier speculation could at least be challenged:

My favorite is from Vance Garnett of Washington: “The 1930 Dashiell Hammett story and, later, the 1941 film ‘The Maltese Falcon’ may well be the earliest usage of the word as we’ve come to know it. Humphrey Bogart as ‘Sam Spade’ tells Mary Astor, as the femme fatale, ‘You’re taking the fall.’ ”

Sorry, Vance. Sam does say "You're taking the fall" to Brigid, but he doesn't call her the "fall guy." The term arises 24 pages earlier ("We've got to have a fall guy") and recurs several times before landing conclusively on Wilmer the gunsel (Elisha Cook Jr. in the movie): "'Well,' he said, 'there's our fall guy.'"

Bill, for some reason, questions Sam's use of "taking the fall":
I wonder about that; in the Humpty Dumpty world of falls, to take the fall means “to accept punishment” but does not necessarily impute unfairness or corruption to the punishment. “To take a fall,” however, is equivalent to take a dive, in which the faller is complicit in the trick, dodge or conspiracy in throwing the fight. (Emphasis his, as is the missing "to" after "equivalent.")

Bill! Dude! Of course it doesn't impute unfairness! Brigid killed Miles, and she's going over for it! As Wilmer is taking the fall for the guys he shot! The only time Sam suggests that a "fall guy" might be partially innocent is when he suggests Cairo for the part (framing Brigid for the two killings in question, of course, is Cairo's idea, not Sam's).

That’s my opinion; that’s what it means to me. But here is the beauty part: My slang definition may not be yours. In dealing with Standard English, lexicographers, etymologists, semanticists and usage mavenim can bring hard-earned authority to definitions, giving needed precision to the language, but when it comes to slang, the experts are the nonexperts. Slang swings; its meanings are in the heads of the users, who are legion and gleefully bang their different drums. (We report; you decide.)

OK. The experts can check in as they will, but is it worth suggesting that "slang" is pretty rule-bound in the bargain? That we have a fairly good idea of what "fall guy" means in the same way we have a good idea of the meaning of lots of other terms that date to the beginning of the 20th century? And, of course, that it'd be awfully nice if somebody held Safire to account for his inanities?

Must be rough up at the Magazine: Safire on language, and the "ethicist" on "ethics." What's next, Dr. Phil on cognitive neuropsyc?


Anonymous VanGart said...

You are right about the "fall guy"
in "The Maltese Falcon" not being the femme fatale played by Mary Astor. But you are wrong about it being Joe Cairo played by Peter Lorre. Rather, it was the "gunsel"
Wilmer played by Elisha Cook Jr.
Bogie as Sam Spade clearly states,
"We'll need a fall guy," then argues for the election of Wilmer, to which Gutmann played by Sidney Greenstreet in his first film role at age 61 reluctantly agrees.
I can only say that I was the victim of editing; consequently, I took the fall.

2:42 PM, May 30, 2007  
Blogger fev said...

Right. Wilmer is Sam's first and best choice. But at one point after Gutmann first rejects the idea, he _does_ suggest Cairo -- at which point Cairo suggests Brigid. A nicely executed sequence in a superb piece of filmmaking.

And for you regular readers (both of you) who wondered why posting was sparse last week, we were wandering up and down Powell Street saying things like "This'll put you in good with your boss."

Unusual to have both our big conventions in the same city in the same AY, but there it is.

5:44 PM, May 30, 2007  

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