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Ex-streaming audio

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  January 9, 2007 11:43 PM

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Today on "Fresh Air," Terry Gross had a long interview with GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who's known for the kind of strategic relabeling that transformed the inheritance tax into a "death tax" and global warming into "climate change."

Luntz has just published "Words that Work," a book explaining how we can all communicate better by using his insights. In today's interview, he earnestly (though not convincingly) insisted that his only goal was to clarify the truth for the American people. It's worth a listen, if only to marvel that he can keep the radio equivalent of a straight face throughout.

His message is not new, though; what caught my ear was a hint of etymological reanalysis suggested by a particular pronunciation. As Luntz explained that environmentalism had given itself a bad name, he said, "A conservationist is seen as someone in the MAIN-stream. An environmentalist, more often, is seen as someone who is more EX-treme." An indifferent speller might well have thought he was contrasting two kinds of stream (or streme).

But of course there is no stream in extreme. The stream that flows into the river is a Germanic word, native to English from the beginning. Extreme, rooted in the Latin extremus -- "far out" -- doesn't come to English till circa 1500. The meanings contrast nicely, but the words aren't even kissing cousins.

Yeah, you know that, and I know that, and probably Frank Luntz knows that. But what about the people who generated the 400,000+ Google hits for exstream? All punsters, or victims of a new folk etymology?

Maybe our great-grandchildren will picture exstreamists as the losers who watch from the riverbank as the sensible people sail by on the mainstream. If "climate change" leaves any riverbanks behind, that is.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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