Necking It Down
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
Haig was the last four-star general to run for a presidential
nomination. His campaign introduced two military locutions to political
discourse: one was nuancal, ''subtly shaded,'' which did not last. But I still hear the useful phrasal verb to snake-check,
which many veterans know means ''to examine closely.'' Before closing
down his campaign headquarters, Al explained its origin: when awakening
from a night out on bivouac, a soldier must snake-check his
boots, which may have provided a warm home for a small snake during the
night. To this day, candidates with military backgrounds like to say to
aides, ''Have you snake-checked this speech?''
We have another retired general and another intriguing verb. Wesley
Clark, during a debate in Arizona, was criticized by Senator Joe
Lieberman for saying at first that he would have voted for the
Congressional resolution that authorized the attack on Saddam Hussein's
regime and later saying the opposite.
Clark denied flip-flopping, explaining that he ''would have
voted for a resolution that took the problem to the United Nations.''
Pressed by the moderator, CNN's Judy Woodruff, Clark explained, ''At
every stage as we walked down through this resolution . . . I took the
situation as it was and necked it down to look for the least worst choice.''
I took note of the unusual locution when punditizing on Jim Lehrer's
''NewsHour'' on PBS and asked viewers for its meaning. Keith Babberney
of Austin, Tex., e-mailed his definition: ''I have heard it used in
reference to reducing the diameter of plumbing, automotive exhaust
pipes and shotgun barrels. More broadly, I've heard usage along the
lines of 'necked down his speed as he neared the policeman's radar
''It refers to ammunition,'' volunteered another viewer,
Freeman Dennis. ''Usually the bullet and the casing are the same size.
However, if one wanted to put a smaller bullet on the same-size casing,
it would be necessary to close the neck of the shell casing to
accommodate the smaller bullet -- to 'neck it down.' This is done to
increase the velocity of the bullet or improve its ballistics. I don't
see how this fits the general's comment, but this is what it means.''
Though some respondents in the metals industry said it
described a coil of steel whose width is reduced beyond the point of
utility, most zeroed in on the firearms application. ''The neck of a
brass cartridge case is made smaller, or necked down,''
noted Peter Lindsay of Madison, Wis., ''to accommodate a smaller
caliber, lighter-weight bullet. In this way the powder charge remains
the same, packing more punch behind the projectile and (hopefully but
not always) improving performance.''
The ammo usage has been extended metaphorically. When a road in
Brooklyn was narrowed to allow room for a bicycle path, The Brooklyn
Skyline led its story with ''Oriental Boulevard has officially been
Is this what Clark had in mind? When I queried his campaign,
the general was too hoarse to talk to me, but a spokeswoman to whom he
whispered his explanation of his reaction to the Congressional
resolution had an answer. ''What he meant by necking down was this: at every stage he was faced with an already-made decision, and he reacted to that already-made decision. Necking down means tracking as the decisions evolve and coming up with your reaction. He is saying, 'Here is my reaction at this stage.' ''
General Clark was kind enough to draw a diagram of this fascinating
process that brings the definition to life with what mathematicians and
physicists would find to be graphic clarity, but I am unable to share
it with readers because a copy was vouchsafed to me on background. It
has nothing to do with hyping a bullet. After close snake-checking, I can report only that the diagram of necking it down looks more like a staircase.
Paul Ignatius of The Washington Post, who writes a serious
column about foreign affairs, departed from his usual style this month
to describe Britain's Prince Charles in a recent photo as ''wearing a
carnation, carrying a furled umbrella and looking particularly like a twit.''
He concluded his critical commentary about ''poor Prince Charles'' by
noting unforgivingly that ''he blew off one of the world's most
beautiful women for fellow upper-class twit Camilla Parker-Bowles.''
The word is not familiar to most Americans and is sometimes misused. A
sportswriter for The Newport News Daily Press in Virginia reported that
the great Redskins defensive end Bruce Smith ''was in a twit because Regan Upshaw started.'' (He meant snit, a huffy stage of irritation.)
A twit was originally an insult; the verb to twit
meant ''to taunt, to annoy.'' Although the great British slanguist Eric
Partridge speculated that it may have been influenced by twerp, deeper
etymological research finds it rooted in the Middle English atwiten, ''to reproach.''
As a modern noun, however, it has been used mainly in Britain since the
1920's to lightly censure someone as ''a bothersome or feckless
person.'' It is more of a mild derogation than an insult.
Rallying to the side of the Prince of Wales was Boris Johnson,
the editor of The Spectator. Writing in his column in Britain's Daily
Telegraph, Johnson characterized the current wave of gossip that has
engulfed the poor prince as no business of the rest of us and an inverted pyramid of piffle.
The inverted pyramid, familiar to journalists around
the world, is a reference to the classic form of a news story: the
meatiest, most newsworthy portion at the top in the lead, and less
important matter toward the bottom, where an editor short of space can
easily chop it off without affecting the import of the report.
In an original alliteration, Johnson married the pyramid to piffle. This onomatopoeic locution was originally a verb meaning to act feebly, as in Rudyard Kipling's 1896 use, ''They piddled and piffled with iron; I'd given my orders for steel!'' Piffle
has since become a noun, usually uttered as an exclamation, meaning
''twaddle,'' nonsense in Britain, and in the United States -- when not
exclaimed as an overly familiar barnyard epithet -- meaning baloney,