When manipulation gets out of hand

China's currency issue and a popular play about the Enron debacle have the Monitor's language columnist thinking about the link between managing and manipulating.

Does China (a) manipulate its currency, or (b) manage it? Many observers have no trouble saying that the correct answer is "a," that China keeps the value of its currency artificially low to make its exports more attractive in the global marketplace and to limit consumer demand at home.

But many observers are not US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. He is required by law to report to Congress every six months on China's currency. If he pronounces Beijing guilty of currency manipulation, well, that has consequences. Those consequences are beyond the scope of this column; suffice it to say that the Treasury secretary has a motivation to find synonyms for "manipulate."

Manage was the verb news analyst James Fallows, of The Atlantic, turned to when Guy Raz of NPR tried to get him to agree that "there is no doubt, right, that the Chinese government is manipulating its currency?"

Fallows responded, "There's no doubt that they are managing the value of the Chinese currency … to hold it lower than it would otherwise be. Whether that's manipulation is a very important legal term of art."

Manipulate and manage are English verbs derived from the Latin word for "hand." The latter has a better reputation than the former. Both are examples of how words can pick up darker meanings over time.

Manage, to deal with the older one first, goes back to the 1560s, and came into English "probably" from Italian, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It meant "to handle," especially with reference to controlling a horse.

Manipulate comes from an 18th-century term for a method of digging ore. By the early 19th century, manipulation meant the skillful handling of objects. Soon the term applied to the skillful handling of people. You can see where this is going: When you start handling people as objects, you become "manipulative," and it's clear that's not a good thing.

Manage has, on the whole, a more positive set of connotations, but it has a dark side, too. We want to know that things are being well managed, but "managing up" and "managing down," as career-savvy people are encouraged to do, have elements of manipulation.

"Manage" in the less competent sense of "get by" ("I'll manage somehow") goes back to the 17th century. Another term for "managing" in this sense is (was) "to shift." It lives on in the idiom, "to shift for oneself" but also led to "shifty." Crafty has had a similar decline over the centuries. It started out meaning skillful but ended up meaning sneaky.

My antennae are attuned to manipulation for another reason: I've just seen a performance in Boston of English playwright Lucy Prebble's "Enron." It's an analysis of how one of America's most admired companies melted down spectacularly. The show, conceived as a musical, finally emerged as more of a classical tragedy. During the play's sold-out runs in London, critics described Prebble's version of Jeffrey Skilling as a Macbeth of market manipulation.

The play is a reminder that a lot of manipulation retains its concrete sense. Even in the fairly simple production I saw, "Enron" features a number of carefully choreographed scenes of energy traders communicating across the pits with an elaborate set of signals and gestures that puts baseball to shame. Some manipulation, it seems, is still done by hand.

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