Here’s a paragraph from a (rather good) The Daily Beast essay:

One of the toughest decisions [Obama as President]  had to make early on was whether to bail out Detroit. The country was suffering from sticker shock and simmering over government bailouts. And yet Obama and his advisers understood that letting GM collapse could have led to the loss of as many as a million jobs. What they probably also knew was that the president’s reelection might end up hinging on the northern belt of Ohio, which is heavily dependent on the automobile industry.

Daniel Klaidman (formerly of Newsweek) is propounding that Obama is the Fortunate One, but has helped his chances through a sequence of strategic calculations.

As for that paragraph above, the GM rescue was a no-brainer for a Democrat with blue-collar union and white-collar liberal constituencies to assuage. But that wasn’t Malcolm’s sticking point: it’s hinging. It jars: it falls somewhere between a hinge and hanging. After all the clause could have been rewritten as:

  •  the president’s reelection might end up hanging on the northern belt of Ohio
  •  the president’s reelection might end up on the hinge of northern Ohio


  •  the president’s reelection might swing on the hinge of northern Ohio

or numerous other permutations of a decent metaphor, all more mellifluous and more easily comprehended. As it stands, it doesn’t read well.

Yet Klaidman has the right and the canon on his side here.

Hinge as a noun goes back to Middle English. John Wycliffe’s Bible, in the last decades of the Fourteenth Century, rendered Proverbs xxvi, 14 as:

As a door is turned in his hinges; so a slow man in his bed.

Shakespeare, no less, may be the coiner of hinge as a verb. Timon of Athens has withdrawn from Athenian society to a cave in the woods, whence Apemantus comes with some cynical, bitter and political advice:

A poor unmanly melancholy sprung
From change of fortune. Why this spade? this place?
This slave-like habit? and these looks of care?
Thy flatterers yet wear silk, drink wine, lie soft;
Hug their diseased perfumes, and have forgot
That ever Timon was. Shame not these woods,
By putting on the cunning of a carper.
Be thou a flatterer now, and seek to thrive
By that which has undone thee: hinge thy knee,
And let his very breath, whom thou’lt observe,
Blow off thy cap; praise his most vicious strain,
And call it excellent …

That’s no more than observation of how the knee is the hinge in the leg. By the time Oliver Goldsmith came to write his 1760 essay On the English Clergy and Popular Preachers, which is substantially concerned with dissing degenerate foreigners, denied the uplifting virtues of educated English divines, he has it as a metaphor:

Whatever may become of the higher orders of mankind, who are generally possessed of collateral motives to virtue, the vulgar should be particularly regarded, whose behaviour in civil life is totally hinged upon their hopes and fears. Those who constitute the basis of the great fabric of society should be particularly regarded; for in policy, as in architecture, ruin is most fatal when it begins from the bottom.

A Malcolmian aside:

Oh dear, and to think, contemporary with that convoluted thought by Goldsmith, modern democracy was being forged across the Atlantic (though with the greatest pains it should not actually be democratic, let it also be populist).

The American distaste for direct democracy persists to this day, with the creaking apparatus of the Electoral College, and the kind of jiggery-pokery partisan mapping can achieve.

As Dave Weigel is arguing at Slate, gerrymandering of the congressional districts ensures the Republicans can outwit the will of the people. Obama won Ohio, but — because the districts had been engineered to keep the rural and suburban areas red — only four of the sixteen House seats went Democrat. Even more so, in Pennsylvania, where Obama outpolled Romney 52-46½ but only five of the 18 congressional districts went Democrat. He even has a map to show how convoluted is the polling geography, ordained by a Republican local administration:

Welcome to the wonderful world of gerunds

That’s what they were called when Malcolm was learning his Latin grammar. Now they have to be called ‘verbal nouns‘ — though, as with hinging above, they might not be. Friends: you have just been inducted into the magic circle of those who recognise the weaknesses of teaching (and learning) formal grammar, when English as she is lived is about as informal as a language gets.

Anyway, we have finally arrived at hinging. By the look of the OED’s citation for John Nicholson’s The operative mechanic, and British machinist · 1st edition, 1825 (1 vol.), operative mechanics and British machinists were happily absorbing his advice on:

Some information on the subject of hinging in general.

Without checking that source, we might assume it involved door furniture, and so was not the metaphoric usage we seek.

For that we have to wait until John Ruskin, in 1846, was considering Modern Painters. In section 27 of the first volume of this shelf-bender Ruskin addresses Effects of light, how necessary to the understanding of detail. Well, yes, John: an — ahem! — illuminating point indeed. Else we might be reminded of Groucho Marx:

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.

To Ruskin’s context:

All good ornament and all good architecture are capable of being put into short-hand; that is, each has a perfect system of parts, principal and subordinate, of which, even when the complemental details vanish in distance, the system and anatomy yet remain visible so long as anything is visible; so that the divisions of a beautiful spire shall be known as beautiful even till their last line vanishes in blue mist, and the effect of a well-designed moulding shall be visibly disciplined, harmonious, and inventive, as long as it is seen to be a moulding at all. Now the power of the artist of marking this character depends not on his complete knowledge of the design, but on his experimental knowledge of its salient and bearing parts, and of the effects of light and shadow, by which their saliency is best told. He must therefore be prepared, according to his subject, to use light, steep or level, intense or feeble, and out of the resulting chiaroscuro select those peculiar and hinging points on which the rest are based, and by which all else that is essential may be explained.

Well, perhaps that also proves one doesn’t have to be inside Groucho’s dog for lack of clarity.

The all-purpose magic “e”

After many decades of trying, Malcolm still doubts whether spelling is something that can easily be taught. One rule that is taught involves how a silent “e” at the end of a word lengthens the vowel before it:

That terminal “e” is also the softener of a “g”: rag/rage. That is why it is retained in the UK spelling of ageing and similar constructions. Otherwise we have problems with singing and singeing.

So, despite advice from Higher Powers, Malcolm still prefers hingeing.


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Filed under education, Quotations, reading, United States, US Elections

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