Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Gulp! Predicated on . . .

Reading a book by Gerald Murnane recently (a writer only recently discovered, but serendipitously so, given he’s Melbourne’s Proust – forever frozen in mid-life), I came across a word I can’t remember encountering since primary school – predicate. In case you missed grammar for 10-years olds circa 1974, it consisted of just one set of four word-categories (noun, verb etc) and one binary pair – subject and predicate. (And in those days, grammar was like sex education – it came but once, ready or not, and one size fits all. I never again had a lesson on the g-word’s intricacies, up to and including Honours English at Melbourne Uni. But I digress.)

It struck me at about age 10 that predicate-spotting was rather lame; once you had identified the “subject” (a spotting usually so easy as to be itself veering on lame), the “predicate” was usually simply the rest of the sentence. You might as well have called “subject” words starting with “s”, and “predicate” words starting with in letter other than “s”, and then given 10-years olds a hundred sentences to sort out which was which.

Murnane is not the sort of writer to muse over empty grammatical vessels, however. It turns out (from consulting a dictionary) that “predicate” does have a rather precise, if now old-fashioned, meaning – to assert something. Which of course every sentence does, in a way (hence the simplified grammar lesson for 10-years olds), but “predicate” more particularly means a formal or serious assertion, or in more modern parlance, “stand up and be counted”.

No wonder, then, that the p-word has dropped into seeming redundancy over the last few decades. “Assertion” now more or less means asking for – and usually the getting of – what you want, whereas a few decades ago this was called making (and, if applicable, being granted) a request. I’m pretty sure than “predicate” and “request” (in their old-fashioned, particular meanings) would be considered mutually exclusive.

Predicate’s erasure has been made easier by its modern bastard child, “predicated on”. The former has 3,950,000 Google hits, while the latter is fast catching up at 2,140,000 hits.

“Predicated on”, at its modern, frequent worst, means contingent upon the happening of an event outside the speaker’s or subject’s control (eg: a Western politician saying “Climate change being stopped globally is predicated on China committing to immediate, binding emissions reductions”). In other words, the exact opposite of an old-fashioned assertion (“Climate change can/will be stopped”). Thus, “predicated on” is a mumbled piety, prefacing and airbrushing the real message: which is, in more modern parlance, “the ball’s in their court”. If you like, “predicated on” usually has a sting in its predicate.

Coincidentally, just before taking some medication the other day, I caught myself thinking something which also sent me to the dictionary. The exact moment was the deliberate swallow (of just saliva) I made shortly before I swallowed the medication (with water). It occurred to me (probably not coincidentally after reading Murnane), that this pre-medication swallow was a particular one – i.e. it wasn’t a simple swallowing of saliva, but a rehearsed, conscious and inevitable lead-up to the taking of medication in tablet form.

There seemed to be a conveniently apt word to describe the intense expectation, and yet empty pointlessness, of this pre-medication swallow: Gulp! Until I looked up “gulp” in the dictionary and saw it defined as guzzle, or to swallow/ingest a lot. Another case of modern linguistic slippage – “gulp!” is, like “predicated on”, a secular piety which so brashly prefaces that which follows it that the thing and its preface cancel each other out. And not to mention, pervert their respective dictionary meanings – even if you tried, how could you greedily swallow saliva?

And so in medication, as in life, after suitable dispensation, we unknowingly, casually, blissfully drink it down.

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