Gonzales and the language of departure

The parting of employee and employer is a delicate subject. It's a good thing there's an array of subtle ways to describe it.

What a rich and subtle vocabulary we have to describe the parting of ways between boss and employee, master and servant.

I don't have to explain why this has been on my mind lately.

President Bush, famously loyal and demanding of loyalty, has been saying a lot of goodbyes recently. Alberto Gonzales, his White House counsel and, later, attorney general, is only the most recent close aide to leave.

Was his departure his own idea? Or was he fired? And where does this "fire" come from, anyway? Is the underlying metaphor some concept of an employee being like a piece of (disposable) ordnance to be blasted like a cannonball out of some kind of big gun? Some sort of projectile to be lobbed into the job market?

The Online Etymology Dictionary seems to think so. Fire as a verb meaning to dismiss an employee is American English first recorded in 1885. "Probably from a play on the two meanings of discharge: 'to dismiss from a position' and 'to fire a gun,' " it offers.

It gets worse when you realize that "discharge" can also be rendered as "unload," as when one speaks of unloading a property onto a flooded market.

Was Mr. Gonzales's departure his own idea, or the president's? One of the talking heads I listened to early on speculated that "the president let him go."

Now that's an interestingly nuanced way of putting it. In some contexts, "He was let go" signals an involuntary departure. "To let go" is the idiom that covers, relatively gently, both dismissal for cause (Charlie has never been able to meet his monthly sales quota) as well as layoffs for business-cycle reasons: The small-business owner who realizes she has a payroll of four when she can afford only two has to cut two employees loose, and the idiom she is likely to use in her difficult conversations with them is "I'm going to have to let you go."

"Layoff" is the term an objective third party will use to describe that episode. It's also the term the departing employees will eventually use themselves to make clear to friends and prospective new employers that their departure, while not voluntary, was not for cause, either. ("I was laid off last year.")

But there's another sense in which "to let (someone) go" really does mean "to allow someone to leave." That's why "I'll have to let you go" works for the time-pressed executive as a semipolite way to wrap up a phone conversation. It really means, "I must insist that you let me go."

A grammarian can explain that "You're fired" is a passive-voice construction, in which the grammatical subject ("you") is not the doer of the verb – is not the actor but rather is acted upon. But "You're fired" is as forceful a way of expressing the thought as there is.

It's not hard to imagine that during the past several months, the embattled attorney general offered to resign a number of times. (Even as I write that, it jumps out at me that "offered to resign" is different from, and not quite as far down the road as, "offered his resignation.)

It's also not hard to imagine that the president finally accepted, or maybe just failed to refuse. Or maybe Mr. Bush just didn't refuse as quickly as he had before, and that moment's hesitation was noticed, and that altered the dynamic between the two men. (Note the passive voice there, softening the situation by leaving the "noticer" unnamed, although it's clear who it is.)

It's interesting that in English we have a set of fancy silver, so to speak – Latin-derived words like "discharge" and "dismiss" – and then the everyday flatware of idioms like "let go," made up of two little words so essential to the language that their definitions go on for columns and columns in a big dictionary.

And it's often those flexible, familiar idioms that are the ones we turn to in situations like a difficult parting of the ways between a president and a trusted aide.

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