On the edge - or even over the line

Have you been feeling "edgy" lately? If so, you've got company - but all edges are not created equal.

"Edgy" is leading quite an interesting dual life. It's long been used to mean tense, irritable, "on edge." But it has a whole other meaning these days, something like "provocative" or "daring" or "trend-setting." Edgy is "on the edge" - note that "the" - in the sense of "testing the limits."

I find myself reacting to these two meanings in simultaneous circulation rather in the way a small town adjusts to the return from college of the son of a prominent local family: The son may go into a completely different line of work from his father, but he's got the same name, and both men show up at some of the same places.

So people get used to asking, for instance, "Is that Buster Jones the real estate broker, or Buster Jr., the freshly minted lawyer?"

So it is with "edgy." I note who's using it, and then I can generally tell what's meant. Downward-trending stock markets and upward-trending oil markets have investors feeling "edgy." They are not happy about feeling this way.

In the worlds of film, music, literature, and the media, however, "edgy" is generally meant as a compliment.

A quick Google News survey of "edgy" in headlines finds that of the top 40 hits (ranked by "relevance," as defined by Google), from 70 to 75 percent reflect the "tense, irritable" sense of the word, and the rest are "provocative" and "daring."

The only hit that wasn't clearly one or the other was an ABC News report: "Lisa Marie Presley still edgy." Daughter of Elvis, ex-wife of Michael Jackson, and a musician with a new album out this month, Ms. Presley would seem to have plenty of reasons to be in either camp.

How we feel about "edgy" depends on how we feel about edges - about getting closer to them, or even going over them.

Whether "edgy prose," for instance, is a good thing or a bad thing depends on whether you are a high school principal discussing the student newspaper, or the literary critic of an alternative weekly.

Some would say that, by definition, everyone in creative fields of whatever kind should be constantly testing the limits, pushing to the edge. But there was a time when "edgy" had a very negative meaning in the art world. Webster's 1913 dictionary defined "edgy" as "having some of the forms, such as drapery or the like, too sharply defined: An edgy style of sculpture." Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary has a 19th-century citation, "less edgy and more softly sweet in colour than in previous works."

Sounds rather like what we'd expect of the Victorians, doesn't it?

And what is this edge we're on when we're edgy? Many people associate this idiom with the biblical proverb, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge."

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "to set [someone's] teeth on edge" as "to cause an unpleasant tingling in the teeth."

My own sense of this "edginess" has less to do with tingling teeth than of a physical instability, as of dishes stacked awkwardly on a kitchen counter, of plate glass left leaning against the wall in the front hallway, where it will be all right as long as nobody SLAMS the door...

Did I just hear a crash?

This appears with links at: http:// weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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