The Irascible ProfessorSM
by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction. The moment you are old enough to take the wheel, the responsibility lies with you." ....J.K. Rowling.
Commentary of the Day - November 19, 2012. In the Wheelhouse. Guest commentary by Carolyn Foster Segal.
It might seem difficult to top Big Bird, binders, or bayonets, but another strong contender for the sound bite of this election year is wheelhouse. It's now impossible to go for more than several minutes of listening to radio or TV pundits without being told that something is in someone's wheelhouse.
The word "wheelhouse" has been around since the mid-1800's, expanding metaphorically from boats, as a synonym for pilothouse, and railroads to baseball to corporate double-speakers and pop culture celebrities. There's a New York cable sports show called The Wheelhouse that dates from 2008. It's the name not only of a magazine, multiple consulting firms, and a good number of restaurants but also of a popular attraction at both the U.S. and Tokyo Disneylands -- the Mark Twain Riverboat Wheelhouse -- although it's difficult to imagine that Twain would welcome such an enterprise in his wheelhouse. For another -- and perhaps more relevant -- Disney use of the wheelhouse, see Bruce Watson's inclusion of a clip of "Steamboat Willie," the rat who was the forerunner of the gentle, infantilized Mickey Mouse, in his Daily Finance essay of 11/21/10, "Buzzword of the Week: Wheelhouse."
Whatís so metagrobolizing (I'm grateful to Grant Barrett for his introduction of this word in "It's My Wheelhouse" at A Way with Words; it means surprising or puzzling and is almost as much fun to use as gobsmacked) is that it took so long for wheelhouse to become a political buzzword. James Carville, who was responsible for Clinton's line "It's the economy stupid," included it in his 2003 Had Enough? A Handbook for Fighting Back, in a passage on George W. Bush's White House and the issue of defense, referring to that "administrationís supposed wheelhouse," but that usage failed to launch a media storm. A 2009 use in an episode of Glee attracted far more interest and sparked a flurry of detective work concerning the origins and possibilities of the phrase "in his wheelhouse" (see, for example, Nancy Friedman, Fritinancy, 12/7/09). By 2010, however, Watson, in that Daily Finance essay, was observing that the term had already peaked and warned about its potential for misuse -- which makes it the perfect word for this campaign year
Aside from the analogical possibilities inherent in the idea of election coverage appropriating a word spotlighted in a musical television show set in a high school, the 2012 rebirth of this phrase seems quite inspired. It's far less intimidating than "area of expertise"; users can avoid all charges of sounding too intellectual. It lends itself to quick and easy categorizations and pronouncements, and its metaphorical reaches seem as limitless as the view from, well, a wheelhouse. After all, the person in the boat's wheelhouse is the captain of our ship; the batter in his wheelhouse has all the power. It's a quick trip of the tongue from wheelhouse to White House. And with its connotations of American inventiveness, adventure, and high-spirited summer games, it's downright patriotic.
It's true that it crops up in translations of the French Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea; however, in his "Design of Jules Verne's Submarine Nautilus," Stuart Weir reassures readers that "When Verne was beginning to think of this novel he visited New York City and traveled on a Hudson River steamer" (www.westernexplorers.us, 1982, 2011). The most beautiful use of the word occurs in Jay Pariniís H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville, when the title character says, in the middle of a highly metaphorical passage on his living and writing situations, "I write my books in the wheelhouse, taking my position from the stars." Unfortunately, H.M.'s listener "did not understand a word of this," which brings us to the darker side of the wheelhouse. In The Mutiny of the Elsinore, Jack London refers to a "half-wheelhouse," which suggests some connection with "half-wit." As an archeological term, first used in 1855, wheelhouse refers to a circular stone-walled structure from the late Iron Age, which doesn't bode well for 21st century planners.
And if we step away from the batter's wheelhouse for a moment and turn back to railroads, we need to think carefully not only about power -- but about those who are adept at spinning and changing their tracks.
2012, Carolyn Foster Segal.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a Professor of English, Emerita at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA. She also is an adjunct at Muhlenberg College.
The Irascible Professor comments: Well, I guess we know who is in the wheelhouse for the next four years. And, I suspect that London's reference to the "half-wheelhouse" refers to the open wheelhouse found on some smaller vessels.
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