secret cabal

(Hanging in my posting queue for some considerable time, but just as relevant now as then.

From John McIntyre on Facebook on 9/6/18:

Guardian writer refers to a “secret cabal” in the Trump administration. What other kind does he think there is?

The crucial point is the definition of cabal. From NOAD:

noun cabal: a secret political clique or faction: a cabal of dissidents.

That is, cabals are by definition secret, and secret cabal is pleonastic, so is to be avoided (in favor of plain cabal). The general principle is the Strunk / White Avoid Needless Words dictum. (Yes, we can dispute the applicability of the dictum in particular cases. More below.)

In my mental filing cabinet, the relevant drawer is labeled pilotless drone, after a specific example I discussed at some length back in 2007. Then, of course, the question will be whether my treatment of pilotless drones carries over to secret cabals

(The Guardian example, in context, is available in an appendix to this posting.)

Pilotless drones. From my Language Log posting of 2/8/07, “Droning on”, following an initial discussion of the distinction between intersective and apposite modification:

Now for the subtlety. You might think that even the appositive reading of “pilotless drones” would be stupid, since drones are all pilotless. But look at the explicitly appositive version: “drones, which are pilotless”. This isn’t stupid at all; it REMINDS us, in a helpful way, that drones are pilotless. In general, even when the denotation of Adj is included within the denotation of N, appositive Adj N can do useful discourse work. As a bonus, since intersective Adj N is stupid in this situation, the potential ambiguity is eliminated in practice, in favor of the appositive reading.

… Now an example with appositive Adj N in this inclusion situation, in a context where the writer’s intentions are pretty clear. This is from a comment by “waxwing” on Dave Barry’s blog, following up on another poster’s report that, omigod, there are earthworms up to 11 feet long:

OK, I must say it…does it bother anyone else that legless earthworms are measured in feet?

Very effective, I think.

Then my reaction to the secret cabal case in 2018:

There’s a place for appositive (rather than restrictive) adjectives; the question is whether this is the place. Appositive adjectives emphasize pieces of information that are already packed into the modified noun. One common occasion when you might want this emphasis is when you think a significant number of people in your audience don’t know that this information is already packed into the noun (that drones are in fact pilotless, that cabals are in fact *secret* societies, etc.). This is worth doing if you don’t have a lot of choice about using this particular noun — it came in a quote, it’s the only brief expression available, whatever — but if you have a choice, the better course is not to flaunt your lexical knowledge (by using an arcane word like “cabal”), but to choose a less specifc noun, in this case “society”. So: “secret society” rather than “secret cabal”.

That is, you should take your audience’s likely knowledge into account in choosing how you word your discussion in the first place

But wait, there’s more. NOAD‘s defiinition insists on secrecy as a component of the meaning of cabal. But consider how people become acquainted with the word. What’s significant about most occurrences is conspiratorial plotting;  this might or might not be done in secret, but that’s often not particularly relevant.

As a result, a sense of cabal has developed in which plotting’s the thing and secrecy isn’t definitional. In fact, the American Heritage dictionary, 5th ed., takes this sense to be the primary one. The main part of the entry:

noun 1.  A conspiratorial group of plotters or intriguers: “Espionage is quite precisely it — a cabal of powerful men, working secretly” (Frank Conroy). [Espionage is first of all a group of plotters, and then, it turns out they are working secretly as well, so espionage is a secret cabal.] 2. A secret scheme or plot.  intr.v. To form a cabal; conspire.

So if this is your lexical item, there’s nothing pleonastic about secret cabal. Indeed, I’m guessing that this is the lexical item that the Guardian reporter was using in the passage in the appendix.

Appendix: the beginning of the Guardian piece — “The madness is pouring out of the White House now, for all to see” by Richard Wolffe on 9/6/18 —  with the relevant expression boldfaced:

An anonymous New York Times op-ed by a senior Trump administration official and an explosive new book reveal just how bad things are around the US president

That scratching sound you can hear are the rats snatching their bags – and what’s left of their reputation – before scampering off their pirate president’s ship. It’s only slightly surprising the panic has set in before they even reached the halfway point on their voyage towards his promised treasure.

Perhaps it was the sight of the captain’s personal lawyer admitting to several five-year felonies that got them worried. Or perhaps it was the thought of a Democratic House firing subpoenas at them from the Cannon office building.

Either way, the sad excuses on public display this week are more self-incriminating than self-glorifying.

Let’s start with the bombshell anonymous op-ed in the New York Times, where a senior administration official claims to be part of a secret cabal trying to protect the nation – if not the world – from the worst impulses of the sociopathic man-child purporting to be the commander-in-chief.

2 Responses to “secret cabal”

  1. TommyBoy Says:

    Some (most?) drones are operated by a human from a location remote to the drone. Should the remote operator be regarded as the pilot? (Perhaps an operator becomes a pilot only if seated in the aircraft.) Other drones operate autonomously, but, hopefully, within boundaries set in its flight computer. My personal sense is that drones are either autonomous drones or piloted drones.

    • Sim Aberson Says:

      In my experience, those who control large aircraft like the Global Hawk and very small vehicles like the Coyote are called ‘pilots.’ All such aircraft require ‘pilots’ according to International Civil Aviation Organization rules even if they are pre-programmed to go certain places in controlled air space, just in case something goes wrong.

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