Monday, January 09, 2012

Welcome to Olympia! (kicking off metonymy of Olympia for 2012)

Welcome to Olympia kind legislature, crafty lobbyist, wise reporter, diligent blogger and temporary Olympia-area resident during legislative session,

Here is your handy guide to keeping me calm for the next 60 days or so. First, here's your new word of the day: metonymy.

You've seen metonymy used before, even if you are unfamiliar with the term. Here's a short definition:

Metonymy is a figure of speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept.
More on the actual mechanics of the word metonymy later, but first just a simple request. While you're here in town, please do not say or write “Olympia,” when what you really mean is “state government,” “the state legislature,” “governor's office,” or “legislative leadership.”

1. Why this is a bad idea (for liberals, conservatives and reporters)

I understand metonymy, probably more than most people should. I understand the purpose of using a specific term for a broad topic, like "press" for the "news media," especially in a time when there are fewer and fewer "presses" in the "news media."

But, the use of Olympia for "state government" or "state legislature" is a hugely inaccurate and damaging
metonymy, because it misstates the nature of our government.

Because we elect our representatives from proportional districts, most of the people who serve in the state
legislature come from the urban Puget Sound (not unlike the makeup of the Senate Transportation Committee). So in this example, its more like the urban Puget Sound telling Seattle to "drop dead."

I don't have a problem with language short cuts. I have a problem with language short cuts that are dangerous.

You see, I read a lot of political stuff and I keep an eye out for metonnymic uses of Olympia (or people
who I know do so for me now). And, I've seen a lot more liberals use Olympia to mean the state government or the state legislature than conservatives.

Might just speak to my reading list which has a lot more liberal outlets than conservative, but I don't avoid right wing blogs and sources by any means. It just surprises me any time I hear a liberal use the metonymic Olympia.

And, this is why it surprises me and I think its dangerous: It gets back to the othering of government. That if your state government is "Olympia," some distant crap-ass place where crazy people make decisions for you, you really aren't to blame for what's going on.

But, if Olympia is just another town, and the state legislature is made up of locally elected folks and the governor is elected by a statewide popular election, then we're all to blame for what goes on inside our government.

Conservatives like othering government because they don't trust government and don't want it to work. You'd think liberals would be of a different mind.

But, it isn't "those in Olympia" and it isn't "Olympia's" anything. Legislators are elected from communities all over Washington State.

While they may work in Olympia from time to time, they still come from places not near Olympia.

Calling the state legislator down the road from you as being "from Olympia" or part of "Olympia" makes
them a distant other that has little connection to you or your community. Which isn't true.

2. You think I care about Olympia? Look what happens when you try to use Oly as a world to mean "state government"

I get all Oly-er than though:

Olympia is the capital of the state of Washington, identifiable on maps in classrooms and travel lodges nationwide. It is a city that every elementary school kid memorizes (do they still do that?) as a state capital of a state near the end of the list of states. It was the first state capital and through a hard fight with Yakima and Ellensburg, stayed the state capital. Now we have fancy greek type buildings on a hill. It is home to state agencies, even the ones that are in Tacoma. And, for a couple months or so every winter, we're home to folks like Josh Feit, though we actually try hard to ignore them.

3. So Emmett, I agree with you. Your minor pet peeve is a horrible, horrible thing. How can I reform myself?

You're in luck. Here are some tips on how to say Olympia in the context of Washington State government without being a bad person.

There are ways to the use of Olympia in regards to state government that is not metonymy.

Basically, the rule is you're safe if you are saying "in Olympia" and not "Olympia did this." So, if you're making a geographic distinction, you're fine.

For example, Sen. Steve Hobbs (of some place up north I guess):

I fought hard to carry out the wishes of my district,” Hobbs said. “When we come to a consensus as a community, I am able to carry our message to Olympia and work for the necessary results.

Sen. Hobbs' example is great because he even cites "my district" and "to Olympia," making the obvious point that although he works "in Olympia" for a few months a year, he is actually from somewhere else in Washington. This is often something missed or fuzzed over when Olympia is metonymized.

And, an update from Rep.Reuven Carlyle at MyBallard. The headline states "from Olympia." The report
itself says things like "in Olympia" and "visitors to Olympia."

Of course the trains leaves the tracks in the comment thread below when a commenter says "people in Ballard are compassionate and will enjoy giving their money to Olympia."

God, don't I wish.

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