Tony Abbott isn’t the first pollie to get into trouble with a wink. He’s now in good company with American Tea Party darling Sarah Palin.
Palin’s notorious winks left voters in the 2008 American campaign varyingly “smitten”, “confused” and “nauseated”.
This confusion in part speaks to differing interpretations of a wink across contexts and cultures. One person’s wink for shared knowledge is another’s sexual come on. For Shakespeare, a wink often meant the death of a character.
So, we might remind Tony that a quick wink of shared knowledge to Jon Faine might be interpreted as having sexual overtones. This might, in turn, to loosely paraphrase Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale “give mine good Prime Minister a lasting political Winke”.
Like Palin, Tony leaves me varyingly smitten (oh, those budgies), confused and nauseated (yup, I use the kitten app). But he is my Prime Minister, so here’s a quick lesson on communication and context from a linguist, mate. Meow.
The meaning of a ‘wink’
Linguistic and non-linguistic meanings are slippery concepts. This is perhaps best illustrated by looking at the evolving meaning of the word wink itself.
Wink appears in the earliest records of Old English with the meaning “to close one’s eyes”. This meaning derives from the Old Saxon wincon “nod” and shares a lineage with the German winken “to wave”.
In Old German, this form also appears as wangk and wengk meaning “to move sideways” or “from side-to-side”. Sadly my Oxford English Dictionary insists no obvious links to the modern English wank. Pity.
Wink with the meaning “eye closing” gradually broadened to include the flickering of flames, the passing of things unnoticed and to rich metaphorical extensions of the winking of days. Shakespeare used wink as a noun to refer to the death of his characters as noted above.
The two most prolific meanings for wink are those referring to sleep and that thing Tony did. Both meanings had taken great strides by the 14th centuries whereas the winking of days and unnoticed things faded away.
The function of a wink: pollies, polysemy and context
So, the meanings of linguistic and non-linguistic symbols are slippery. This is something linguists call polysemy. A single form meaning multiple things depending on the context.
For instance, the linguistic form “chipper” is varyingly “a person who chips”, “ridiculously happy” or “a place where Fargo criminals store their friends”. The interpretation of chipper depends on the context.
Pollies seem to have some knowledge about the slippery nature of form and meaning. For instance, “bombing” always ruins one’s day whereas the “pacification of enemy infrastructure” comes with high-fives and a side of Freedom Fries.
Tony knows this rule well. A broken promise on taxes isn’t really broken if it is a levy even if “levy” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: “The action of collecting an assessment, duty, tax, etc.”. This must be one of those “etc.” levies.
Pollies clearly get polysemy, so where are they going wrong? Let’s get back to context.
Context is where polysemy gets sorted out. Like linguistic forms, a wink has more than a few interpretations. In a Latin American context, between a man and a women it is more often interpreted as a sexual come-on.
In an English-speaking environment, it can have this same sexual meaning. It might also entail shared knowledge between you and another (among other things).
This shared knowledge could be, as Tony has suggested, an indication to Faine that he was willing to take the call in spite of its content. Or it could be, as many propose, another case of Abbott’s questionable regard for women and the poor.
To these ends, poor Tony is disadvantaged by human nature.
Gresham’s Law, context and Poor Tony
Language change and the interpretation of language are driven by a similar principle to economic theory. Both are influenced by something called Gresham’s Law.
In economic theory, Gresham’s Law states that “bad money drives out good”. In language, my Monash colleague Kate Burridge has posited, “bad meaning drives out good”.
For instance, Kate notes in her book Blooming English (2004) that words such as sad, daft and whore used to have more positive connotations. Sad once meant “satisfied”, daft “humble” and whore was “a general term of endearment for either sex”.
So, in a context, where a wink might be taken to be polysemous, the meaning is more likely to be interpreted in a negative rather than a positive light whatever the truth might be.
Politicians are making a dog’s breakfast of context. When there’s a microphone or a video camera on, context is much larger. More people means more potential (mis)interpretations.
And, when there’s a negative interpretation to be had, our minds often go there. With a wink, some will be smitten, some confused and some nauseated. But we humans are more likely to be the latter two. Keep this in mind, my dear Prime Minister. Ask Palin. Meow.