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November 14th, 2007

Materialism vs. consumerism / the DiMaggios, the Hemingways

by Barbara Wallraff

Matt Bezanson, of Madison Heights, Mich., writes: “Am I the only one who sees a distinction between ‘materialism’ and ‘consumerism’? The distinction has now become so blurred that it may be lost forever.

“Materialism is a belief that happiness can be found at the shopping mall, that possessions are more important than ideals, that a person can be evaluated based on what he or she owns. Consumerism is a political idea that says corporations have no conscience and that consumers need to be protected from producers’ excesses by organized groups, such as governments. Barbie is a materialist, Ralph Nader a consumerist.

“Apparently, no one else sees a distinction anymore. Each December, I hear various clergy bemoaning the ruin of Christmas by consumerism.”

Dear Matt: Interesting point, but I’m afraid you are the only one who makes exactly that distinction. “Consumerism” has been used in two different ways since around the time Barbie was born -- or, rather, launched -- in 1959. One of them is pretty much as you say, and the other is a nonjudgmental version of materialism as you define it.

Therefore, I think you’ve discovered a new antagonym, also known as a contronym or auto-antonym -- a word with two opposite meanings. More familiar examples of antagonyms are “cleave,” which can mean either “cut apart” or “stick together”; and “fast,” as in “run fast” versus “hold fast.” For centuries we’ve been able to tell which meaning these words have in a given context. So we shouldn’t have much trouble keeping the two kinds of consumerism straight. Let it go.

Steve Hazlett, of Albuquerque, N.M., writes: “Many sports announcers use a form of reference to players that drives me up the wall. For instance, a baseball announcer referring to great hitters of the past will list them as ‘the DiMaggios, the Mantles, the Aarons, the Ruths,’ as if there were more than one of each. Do you know where this form of reference originated?”

Dear Steve: It’s not just sports announcers. Here’s a recent quote from the humorist and critic Joe Queenan: “You will find no Sinatras in these faux dives, no DiMaggios, no Hemingways, no Mailers, no Lauren Bacalls.”

You ask where references like these originated. They use the names of individuals to evoke a larger group to which those individuals belong (such as baseball’s greatest hitters). So they’re examples of a time-honored figure of speech called synecdoche (pronounced almost like “Schenectady”: si-NECK-da-key), in which a word for a part of something is used to refer to the whole, or vice versa.

But I suspect that other readers will want to ask why they annoy you so much. Sometimes they annoy me too. A made-up example would be “the Shakespeares among today’s playwrights.” Because Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest English-language playwright ever, the phrase bestows unearned glory on those modern playwrights. What little I know about baseball suggests that much the same might be said of your list. It consists of the greatest hitters ever (am I right?), and tossing off their names as if there have been plenty of comparable players insults their memory.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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