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The Evisceration of Meaning

When the first Gulf War broke out (“Desert Storm”), I invented a joke, which goes as follows:

Question: “Where’s Kuwait?”
Answer: “Between a rock and a hard place.”

Now, whatever humor this inanity may exhibit depends on the new pronunciation of Iraq as [ɨrɑ́k] instead of the traditional [ɨrǽk].

But what I want to concentrate on is the non-jocular sense of the answer, which everybody knows is a fixed expression meaning “confronted with equally unpleasant alternatives and few or no opportunities to evade or circumvent them.”

Why do Americans use this utterly flat locution? No self-respecting originator of English proverbs would ever have coined such a phrase. The English nation gave us “a stitch in time saves nine.” It gave us “In for a penny, in for a pound.” But “a hárd place?” How bathetic can you get?

“Hard place,” with its obligatory primary stress on hard to signify a derived compound, carries absolutely no punch at all. It’s the veriest limp dishrag semantically, with a meaning so eviscerated as to be almost void of meaning.

Yet people launch this lead balloon of a phrase all the time, just as they do the compound noun “wake up call.” Think of it! Something whose origins are mere telephone calls from the front desk of a hotel to a guest who asks to be woken at a certain hour is now used ubiquitously to mean any kind of unexpected alert or alarm (even though “wake up call” in its original use was anything but unexpected). “9/11 was a wake up call for the nation.” The atrocity of the century a WAKE UP CALL? Bathos on a stick!

Now, compare this metaphorical nothingness with “Between the Devil and the deep blue sea;” or––even better––”Between Scylla and Charybdis,” which means “In a position where avoidance of one danger exposes one to another danger.” It exists as an expression in every European language.

Scylla and Charybdis are two sea monsters of Greek mythology who inhabited opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy.

Charybdis takes the form of a monstrous mouth that swallows huge amounts of water three times a day before spewing them back out again, creating whirlpools. She was originally a naiad, a sea-nymph who stole Heracles’ cattle until Zeus became angry, threw her into the sea, and, as punishment, turned her into a sea monster.

Scylla was a grotesque creature with six long necks surmounted by grisly heads, each with a triple row of teeth, that devoured six men at a time. She wore a girdle of dogs’ heads about her loins.

The myth has Charybdis lying on one side of a narrow channel of water. On the other side was Scylla. The two sides are a stone’s throw from each other, so close that sailors attempting to avoid Charybdis would pass too close to Scylla and vice versa.

Next time you’re tempted to utter the phrase “Between a rock and a hard place” think of Scylla and Charybdis. It’ll be a wake up call.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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