boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
THE WORD

As the stomach turns

A usefully ambiguous political challenge

During last week's congressional debate on Iraq, House minority leader John Boehner argued that the resolution against troop increases would leave America's enemies "secure in the knowledge that America doesn't have the stomach to stop them."

This intestinal-fortitude idiom has been part of the Iraq discussion for a while now, most notably in Dick Cheney's recent speeches and interviews. But as far back as October 2004, former New York mayor Ed Koch was using it to lambaste queasy war skeptics, declaring that Democrats "don't have the stomach to fight international terrorism!"

Sometimes, hearing these polemical uses of stomach, you suspect that the speaker would rather be accusing his targets of insufficient backbone, guts, heart, or something less printable. But stomach, it turns out, is usefully ambiguous as a political challenge -- an insult with deniability built in.

That's because, for 500 years, the figurative stomach has meant both "courage, guts," and "inclination, desire, taste." And to add to the uncertainty, the related verb "stomach" means "put up with, stand for, tolerate" -- words more suggestive of staunchness than cowardice.

Here's Shakespeare, quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary to illustrate the "valor" sense: "To morrow morning call some Knight to Armes, That hath a stomacke."

And Emerson, using the "taste, appetite" sense: "And if one lacks stomach for Mr. Grote's voluminous annals, the old slight and popular summary of Goldsmith...will serve."

Google Book Search turns up Thackeray's observation: "Away with him who has no stomach for such kind of entertainments [melodramas], where vice is always punished, where virtue always meets its reward."

And also this gem from a 1929 book on human behavior: "The plain fact is that he has no stomach for his wife because his mother still absorbs his store of love."

So does "no stomach," in today's politics, mean "no guts," or just "no taste"? Sometimes -- as in Ed Koch's declaration -- it's clearly the former. But in more discreet utterances -- "do the American people have the stomach?" -- the speaker might claim that "patience" or "appetite" is equally plausible. After all, President Bush just last week called the surge skepticism just "a difference of opinion."

Press secretary Tony Snow, however, hasn't been clued in to the subtleties of stomach -- at least, he hadn't as of Dec. 12. At a White House press briefing, a reporter asked him whether the president, as he planned the troop increase, was "factoring in...what the American people have a stomach for."

Snow replied that the phrasing of the question was "kind of loaded." Loaded how? asked the journalist. "'The stomach,'" responded Snow. And the questioner obligingly rephrased, asking about "an acceptance within the American public to send more troops."

Maybe by now someone has sent Snow the memo: This metaphorical stomach is Republican-approved rhetoric, and if it's "loaded," it's listing toward the right.

PINNING DOWN "DIAPER": There was no escape from the coverage of astronaut Lisa Nowak and her love-fueled road trip, but it wasn't till Jon Stewart's segment on "The Daily Show" that I noticed the language angle. "She wore diapers," said a series of TV newscasters in the nine or 10 video clips Stewart strung together; only Jim Lehrer of the "NewsHour" chose the singular "diaper."

And yet, they all meant the same thing. You don't have to wear multiple diapers -- at once or in succession -- to be "wearing diapers." Singular or plural, they mean the same. And a Google search shows "wearing diapers" significantly outpolling "wearing a diaper."

I e-mailed Ben Zimmer, an Oxford University Press lexicographer and newish father, to ask what was up. If diapers is like pants, shorts, and clamdiggers, how come we don't wear "a short" or "a pant"?

Zimmer responded with way more diaper material than I have space for, so he has posted the long story at the linguistics blog Language Log. But in short, his explanation was that diaper started out singular, and often still is. But when we put it on a person, the anatomical analogy with pants, BVDs, and suspenders -- not true plurals, but "duals" -- pushes us toward the plural form.

Will diapers go all the way to duality, and become "a pair of diapers"? It's already happening, Zimmer says, citing several Nowak-related stories, including one in the Providence Journal: "It just doesn't seem 'Right Stuff' macho to imagine John Glenn or Chuck Yeager in a pair of diapers."

Well, no, it doesn't, but then, you don't want to imagine the alternative, either. Better to focus on singulars and plurals, and leave the sanitary arrangements to NASA.

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For the Word blog, go to boston.com/ideas/brainiac/word.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES