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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Who or what is an adult?

What, in Washington, DC, does the word "adult" mean?  And how has that meaning changed with the continuing chaos of the Trump administration?  The New York Review of Books has an interesting discussion, written by James Mann.

As he points out --- "For the first time, America has a president who does not act like an adult. He is emotionally immature: he lies, taunts, insults, bullies, rages, seeks vengeance, exalts violence, boasts, refuses to accept criticism, all in ways that most parents would seek to prevent in their own children. Thus the dynamic was established in the earliest days of the administration: Trump makes messes, or threatens to make them, and Americans look to the “adults” to clean up for him. The “adults,” in turn, send out occasional little public signals that they are trying to keep Trump from veering off course—to educate him, to make him grow up, to keep him under control. When all else fails, they simply distance themselves from his tirades. Sometimes such efforts are successful; on many occasions, they aren’t."

And so the meaning of the word "adult" has changed.  Originally, it meant a person who adhered to certain policy approaches -- usually centrist and not too far to the left.  Thus, Bernie Sanders would never be called an "adult" in Washington parlance, though I suspect no one would quite dare to suggest that he needed adult supervision.  Ralph Nader is another. 

Now, however, the word refers to behavior.  It harks back to irritated parents, who ask a wayward teenager to "please act like an adult."  This is exactly the interaction between Trump and the "adults" in the room -- he makes messes, and they are expected to step in and clean it up.  When the messes involve grave matters like endangerment of world peace, or crucially important trade pacts, the public looks anxiously for one of the perceived adults to step in and save the precarious situation.

So it is doubly interesting that three of the perceived adults are military men.  What does this mean for the future of the world?  Read the thought-provoking article for more.

Quite apart from politics, though, it is a fascinating footnote to the history of how words evolve.  Think of the maritime word "fathom," for instance.  From the earliest days at sea, it was about six feet, or the length of a man's arms outstretched. On land, to "fathom" was to encircle with one's arms.  Back at sea again, it became a useful way of measuring depth, which is probably why it then evolved to its modern meaning, to understand, or puzzle out -- as in, "I can't fathom what he is talking about."

Which is exactly what the "adults" are doing much of their time in Washington.

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