Monday, July 20, 2009

Checking in with Safire: Models

Safire's column this past weekend touched on a couple of interesting points. He talks about the rise of 'associate' for pretty menial employees — like people mopping up after pet 'accidents' in a pet store in his example. And he lays out the logic of why we have a definite article in phrases like "the architect Frank Lloyd Wright". (It's NYT style to avoid 'false titles', but you can click through and read for yourself.)

But check out this:


Time was (excuse me — “Back in the day”) the noun model meant “a three-dimensional representation of the design of a large structure; a small form of a planned artistic work.” As the 20th century dawned, it gained a symbolic meaning as mathematicians used model as a representation of a concept or system. Then another sense emerged: “an exemplar, a person to be imitated.” That led to “a pattern to be followed, an approach to be emulated,” as in this use in a front-page headline in The Times this month: “Health Co-op Offers Model for Overhaul.”

In The Washington Post, the political columnist Michael Kinsley reviewed several solutions to “the burgeoning field of fretting about the future of newspapers.” He then posed a question: “But which of these ‘models’ (to use the modish term) is best?” (That was a subtle touch by the writer, parenthetically using modish, meaning “fashionable,” to describe today’s lemminglike fascination with the word model in economics and politics.)

Is model in this sense really modish? Regular readers of this blog know that I'm no word guy, but isn't this a virtually inevitable figurative extension of what OED has as the core meaning? To wit:
I. A representation of structure, and related senses.
In fact, it looks like similar usages go way back. If we stretch a little, we can even put the Bard in here, again from an OED example:
1600 SHAKESPEARE Much Ado about Nothing I. iii. 42 Wil it serue for any model to build mischiefe on?
Clearer, I guess, is this:
1611 C. TOURNEUR Atheists Trag. II. sig. D4, My plot still rises, According to the modell of mine owne desires.
Interestingly, OED lists this figurative sense as 'obsolete'.

Maybe the bigger question here is why people like Safire obsess over relatively minor (in the grand scheme of things, at least) extensions in meaning. With all the richness of language and language change, this gets a page of the NYT Sunday Magazine?


The Ridger, FCD said...

Mr Safire obsesses over these things because they are things he can pontificate on. And they annoy him.

Mr. Verb said...

Gee, I asked a question and you have provided a simple and compelling answer. Thanks!