A surge of ergativity

I'm hard put to think of a word that has come out of nowhere to be so much on people's lips as surge. It refers, of course, to President Bush's new plan to increase American troop strength in Iraq.

In an interview on National Public Radio, linguist Deborah Tannen suggested that surge sounds like a response to "insurgency." It sounds more positive, more energetic, than "troop buildup" or "escalation."

Defense Department officials avoid surge, NPR reported. But from a headline writer's perspective, what's not to love about a word that expresses an entire foreign policy option in a single syllable?

This column is at the intersection of two words. The one we've just met, surge, is inescapable.

The other is almost invisible. I'd never seen it – that I remember – until I ran across it while researching something else. That word is ergativity.

Erg is a Greek root meaning "work," as in energy, ergonomics, and the like. There's even an English word erg from that root, which refers to a very small unit of work: 13,560,000 ergs make a foot-pound.

Ergativity is a linguistic concept, and it's given me an insight into why surge is being used the way it is now.

It has to do with the question of agency – not just who or what is the subject of a sentence, but who is the "doer" of the action of the verb. Some languages have a separate grammatical "case" for such "doers."

When I looked up ergative in the Oxford English Dictionary, the point I got was that ergativity helps describe the relationship between two brief sentences, "The stone moved" and "John moved the stone." In the latter, John is not just the subject of the sentence but the "ergative subject."

In other words, what's started out as the stone moving of its own accord (rather unlikely, but this is the dictionary's example) has become the stone moving because of the action of John. John has entered the picture as the mover, the doer.

Hmm. Now think about how you've read and heard surge used lately.

The usage that's stood out to me is "surging the troops," as if surging were something one does to troops. Here's a line from a piece Reuel Marc Gerecht wrote last fall in The Wall Street Journal: "We either declare defeat and withdraw completely tout de suite, or we surge troops into Baghdad and fight."

Surge is usually an intransitive verb. It can have a subject – the troops who will surge. But it doesn't have an object; that's what we mean by "intransitive." The troops won't surge anyone or anything. And they won't "get surged," the way John's stone got moved. At least they haven't until now. But for Gerecht, "surging the troops" is an option.

I've heard similar usages in less momentous contexts. During a newsroom budget crunch years ago, one of my colleagues observed that we could probably absorb much of the hit by keeping our correspondents closer to home for a few months. "We can just travel them a little less," she said.

The correspondents surely thought of themselves as "traveling." From our headquarters perspective, we knew they were, in a sense, "being traveled."

A similar example came up the other day at a meeting of a professional group I belong to. As we discussed members in arrears on their dues, someone observed, "If people don't pay, we can just lapse them." Well, "lapse" is intransitive. A membership lapses, or is allowed to lapse. But someone wanted a more forceful response: "Pay up or we'll lapse you!"

It's understandable that those in Washington are desperate for new ideas on the mess in Iraq. And they don't just want to see a "troop surge." They want to "surge the troops" themselves.

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

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