“Realistic” as a slur

I’ve been having fun recently thinking about two sets of terms that are so close to each other, in a way, and yet so very far apart.

The first set is real/realistic. It comes from the most recent remake of Miracle on 34th Street. The interchange between the little girl on Santa’s lap and Santa goes like this.

Susan: But you’re a very good Santa Claus. Your beard is stuck on real tight. Usually the Santa’s whiskers are too loose. Yours are realistic.

Santa: That’s because they ARE real.

This is what Susan (Mara Wilson) looks like then the beard doesn’t come off when she pulls it.

Real. Realistic. “Realistic” specifies that they are not real and comments on how nearly they look—or smell or feel or sound—like the real thing. It would take a revolution in Susan’s world to enable her to ask whether they are real.

If the whiskers are real, it would only require that the person playing Santa Claus have an actual beard of his own. He brings his own beard to playing the role of Santa Claus. But, of course, there is another possible meaning as well, which is that the beard is real because Santa Claus is real and this is THE Santa Claus.

That question is addressed in this same scene, where the double-valued word is “employee.” Here’s how that goes. Susan introduces herself as the daughter of the woman who runs the Cole’s parade and, we know as viewers, the woman who hired Santa Claus to play the part of Santa Claus in the department store

Susan: I know how this all works. You are an employee of Cole’s.

Santa: THAT is true.

What Susan means, and what she thinks she said, is that the man on whose lap she is sitting is “the Cole’s department store Santa Claus AND NOT THE REAL THING.” What Santa says in reply is precisely correct. He is an employee of Cole’s. He does not touch on the question of whether he is also the real Santa Claus.[1]

So “real” and “realistic” operate on different levels entirely. The second set of words to be set side by side is “diverse” and “perverse.” The -verses are the same, of course,[2] but they appear, in a manner of speaking, in different chapters.

Things that are “diverse” are “turned different ways,” according the Latin root diversus. [3] The di- is the remnant of dis-, which suggests a variety of turns, just as convert uses con- to suggest turning back and traverse uses trans- to travel across. No judgment is implied in any of these. Going on and going back and going different ways are all fine in the right circumstances. [4]

“Perverse” isn’t like that. The prefix per- gives us “away” or “askew.” Those are not good. There is a norm, in other words, that supports “perverse” just as there is a norm that supports “real.” And the behavior in question does not, according to the speaker, conform to that norm. If there were no norm, “diverse” would work just fine; if there is a norm and the behavior in question violates it, “diverse” is just not enough.

So no amount of diversity gets you to perversity. It isn’t a superlative form. For anything to be perverse, some norm must be proposed so that “away from” can mean something. Someone with a greater attraction to making trouble than I have might ask, when some thing is called “perverse,” just what norm is being violated.

My guess is that it would be hard to say sometimes and, at other times, not so hard to say, but hard to admit.

[1] At the trial, the prosecutor asks him point blank if he is Santa Claus. “Yes, of course,” he replies.
[2] These two words share the root vertere = “to turn” but are differentiated by their prefixes.
[3] This one emerged in a conversation with my son, Doug, who, like his father, has a thing about words.

[4]  All the beautiful slim women represent “diversity” in some sense or other.  You have to look for it

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Words and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.