Words, Dec. 31 

President Obama, during the debate over his health-care reform bill:

“We are on the precipice of an achievement that has eluded Congresses and presidents for generations.”

The president's critics may have accused him of inadvertent candor. He obviously believed that passage of the bill would be a good thing, but the use of precipice doesn't generally convey that meaning. Literally, a precipice is “a cliff with a vertical, nearly vertical or overhanging face.” Figuratively, it's “a situation of great peril,” as in We are on the precipice of war.

Had the president moved from the precipice to the brink, he would have been in a more advantageous position. A brink too is “the edge or margin of a steep place,” but it can also be “a crucial or critical point, especially of a situation or state beyond which success or catastrophe occurs: We stand on the brink of victory.”


Issues like health-care reform used to be fought out between the grass roots and the special interests, aka upper crust aka fat cats aka many other names. (And not smelling too sweetly under any of them.) New technology has brought new terminology. Now we find netroots in mortal combat with astroturf. The former is “the grassroots political activists who communicate via the Internet, especially by blogs,” according to Merriam-Webster on-line. The lower-case astroturf isn't in the M-W, which lists only the capitalized Astroturf, a trademark for a kind of artificial turf. (My  spell-checker inserts the big “A”  if I forget to do it myself.) Still, people persist in using a little “a” in some cases. The new astroturf is applied to groups like the Teabaggers, that pretend to be from the grass roots but are actually financed and controlled by corporations and other wealthy interests.

In the early days of artificial turf, most any brand was likely to be called “Astroturf” or “astroturf” by sports fans. The manufacturers seem to have discouraged that practice somewhat, but now this new usage has sprung up. I suspect the bloggers will be tough nuts to crack.     


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