Mind Your Language?
The other day I was watching an old movie and one character said to another : What are you crazy?
For some reason, over the next few days I kept hearing that phrase. Suddenly, everyone was asking everyone if they were crazy. I heard it on TV shows, radio shows. I even heard couples asking it of each other while shopping.
Unfortunately, I didn’t see it in writing anywhere and that is what has led to the question du jour. Specifically, what does this question mean and what is the proper way of asking it?
Are we supposed to say What? Are you crazy? As in what is that nonsense you are spouting? Are you crazy to say something like that?
Or is it What are you? Crazy? As in what sort a life form are you, the crazy kind?
It all has to do with the pacing of the utterance and where (and if) the speaker pauses while asking the question. The best rendering of the phrase is from someone with a New York accent so that it comes across as Whaddayoucrazy with no question mark. But that doesn’t shed any light on what it really means.
Anyway, this question got me thinking about some of the other ways in which phrases are confused over time. Actually, I don’t think they get confused over time. What actually happens is that someone hears the phrase incorrectly and repeats it and it goes viral.
For example, you may have heard George Carlin’s rant about “the proof is in the pudding.” He would get all wound up about people saying “the proof is in the pudding,” when the actual phrase is “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
And if you think about it, there is a major difference between the two.
Well, I have a rant, too, and it’s about the ongoing debate about carrots and sticks. I used to think that this was my personal peeve but it appears that it is a bit of a fault line among the grammar types.
I was reminded of the phrase when recently one of our government ministers was talking about planned changes to the child support payment laws to minimize non payment of child support by one spouse or the other. He trumpeted that the new legislation would have “both a carrot and a stick.”
How is that going to work? I said to myself.
Because everyone knows that the genesis of the term is the concept of dangling a carrot in front of donkey while he is pulling a cart. The donkey’s mentality is such that he thinks that if he walks faster he will catch up with the carrot on the stick and get to eat it.
End of discussion. Or it should be.
But I think what has happened is that if you say it fast, “carrot on a stick” can sound just like “carrot and a stick.” And the idea of a carrot as a reward must have led to the idea of the stick being a penalty. And now, virtually all schemes designed to change peoples’ behaviour are described as having a “carrot and a stick.”
But I’m kind of partial to the idea of the carrot on the stick as opposed to the carrot and the stick. For a number of reasons.
First, when I was an agent of global capitalism, our HR model was described as a “carrot on a stick” approach. And it was. They dangled this “carrot” of money and promotion and title and other perquisites and emoluments and the idea was that eager employees would run fast in the hope of reaching them.
Management, benevolent and avuncular as ever, must have been highly amused at the thought of us, donkeys that we were, actually thinking that we might someday catch the carrot.
Second, although I understand the concept of “the carrot and the stick” as being a motivational tool in that it provides both a reward and punishment, the whole thing makes no sense. What sort of a reward is a carrot? And, nowadays at least, who can realistically be punished with a stick?
I recognize that we are talking metaphors here but one rule for good metaphors is that they make sense. Carrot on a stick passes this test because you can imagine a donkey actually getting fooled. And employers treating their employees like beasts of burden isn’t at all hard to imagine. Plus you can alter it and it still makes sense. You could say “Sugar cube on a fishing rod” or “Apple on a barge pole,” and the idea would still work.
Not so with carrot and stick. Would you know what someone was trying to say if they announced: “Our new policy has a sugar cube and fishing rod?” I think not.
And it you try to put it in terms of realistic rewards and punishments it gets even crazier.
So I leave it to you whether it’s What, are you crazy, or What are you, crazy. But I insist that it’s carrot on a stick.