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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Displays of Authenticity (15)—In the Wheelhouse

[a] Steerage RF
I have encountered a "new" word in English recently. To use a double-negative, it is not as though the phrase has never failed to enter my consciousness (something like kzcxhgenery, for example). It has occupied a place way back in the recesses of my imagination, probably because I have heard of "wheel" and "house" before. Call me sheltered (or landlocked), but I have rarely, until the last few weeks, thought of them as being linked. Wheelhouse. What the heck? Clearly, the concept doesn't seem to be in my wheelhouse.
[b] Housings RF
As is often the case, it was Mitt Romney who first got my attention. The American presidential candidate claims that the economy is in his wheelhouse. When I first heard him say this, I was puzzled.  

His where? Is that why he's wearing jeans all of the time?

I thought I had it figured out, but then wasn't so sure, so I decided to sleep on it. Hours later, I awoke in mid-slumber to shout "Mitt...get the economy out of your wheelhouse; that's the problem! It's been stuck in your wheelhouse!" To my mind, Monsieur Romney had tucked the American economy into dry dock, and the little wheelhouse was looking out over a patch of New Jersey. That explained a lot, I thought.

I soon learned that my interpretation of the phrase (a big place for storage of wheels and other stuff, or so I thought) was just a bit—way— too literal. In the last few weeks I have become attuned to "wheelhouse" as meaning something akin to 專門, as in the following snippet from a formal introduction Governor Romney might make in Tokyo while (formally) addressing a fine geopolitical partner

                       specialty is the American economy...
                                ...the (American) economy is in my wheelhouse...

[c] Authenticity RF
I have spent enough time in Japan (and China, which has the same characters for pretty much the same idea) to know that a specialty is nothing about which one quibbles. If your wheelhouse is a 専門 senmon of yours, you must know a lot about it. Well played, ミテ (Mitt). The American economy is in your wheelhouse, as you attest.

I think I am beginning to catch on. It is a kind of display of authenticity, a statement of expertise in some realm or other. If something is in your wheelhouse, you can hit it like a hanging curveball...out of the park. I was becoming accustomed to the extensions of meaning, but I had never heard anyone "unpack" the term before.

It all comes down to a single phrase in a stump speech, repeated throughout Mississippi, Alabama, and Illinois...with varying results. I swear that I had never thought of the wheelhouses before Mitt Romney started parking the economy in his a few weeks ago. Wheelhouse? Isn't that where we put the 1958 Bentley and the old yacht...or a couple of Cadillacs? Isn't it at least a garage...of sorts? Wheelhouse? A house for...wheels?

Go ahead and check the online dictionaries. They skip right from wheels and housing and jump immediately to the everyday cultural usage. It goes like this: 

                    I know this aspect of our shared cultural existence, 
                    and am authentically good at it.

[d] Wheelhouse...literally RF
From there, it can (if we follow the dictionaries) be translated as "I can be trusted to perform evaluative duties in this sphere without problem."

Ummmm. Not so fast, Governor. Wheelhouse? Where on the appropriate-height tree-lined earth did your speech writers come up with that one? And don't tell me that it's just a phrase. Wheelhouse? I have lived five decades, and I don't believe that I had ever spoken the word until Mitt said it. 

Now I say it all the time, and am convinced that French sinology is in my wheelhouse. 

RomneyClaim has broadened my horizons, to be sure, but I would still be confused if I had not started thinking about Herman Melville and Patrick O'Brian. A wheelhouse, you see, is somewhere (where) you steer things. I guess that steering is related to authenticity, and a wheel house is the little hut on board the ship that houses...the wheel. 

Wheelhouse. Steerage. Authenticity.

Keep your eye on this phrase. Unless you wear a patch, notice nautical twilight, and have saltwater in your ears, you will probably hear the word more in the next six months than you have in your whole life. Culture (and language) is like that. In just the last week, I have heard strange uses of "wheelhouse" that make me think that I am not the only person who has been confused. An ESPN writer on Sunday exclaimed that Tiger Woods has four major tournaments "in his wheelhouse" this year, with the Masters beginning next week. What does that mean? He's good at (major) golf tournaments, to be sure, but what does that have to do with his wheelhouse? How are those tournaments "in his wheelhouse?" He has won almost a quarter of the majors he has entered. Maybe the author was right about Tiger having those tournaments in his wheelhouse. Maybe.

That "maybe" is what I'm talking about. Wheelhouses are going to be discussed for a while now, and not all usages will cohere. When Mitt speaks, we listen. Keep your ears attuned for this particular little rhetoric of authenticity, and see where it goes from here (hear). Culture and history are ever-changing, and no matter how talented we might be as interpreters, we can never have those in our wheelhouses

Nope. It's too complicated for that. Like life. And language. And life...and language...and life...
[e] In the wheelhouse RF

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