A Hundred Words for Swindle

You perhaps remember the story about Eskimos having a large vocabulary devoted to the varieties of snow? Well, that was a swindle, an urban myth. The Inuit and other people who live in snowy places don't have many more words for snow than the rest of us who live in places that are only intermittently snow bound. Anthropologists took an initial estimate by Franz Boas and over the course of the decades snowballed the number into the hundreds.

The idea, of course, was that important aspects of the environment should generate important proportions of the languages grown in the environments. But the idea falters when the environment, however important, just doesn't have enough variety to support a great deal of vocabulary. Snow is that way: it can be dry snow, wet snow, crusty snow, or powder. There are about 20 so root terms for snow, and that about exhausts the varieties worth naming.

So, are we dealing with the same sort of urban myth when Walter A. McDougall tells us that "American English is uniquely endowed with words connoting a swindle"? He certainly gives us a long list of words in American English, and I've constructed my own long list from an online thesaurus, but he doesn't attempt to produce any comparable lists for other languages. What he does give us is an argument why it ought to be so.

The argument is that Americans have been uniquely free to try things out, at first because the colonial legislatures were disinclined to import the restrictions of the old-world, or do anything else, and later because the laissez faire attitude had become a habit or even a national affectation. Americans have always been free to test the limits in ways that the Europeans could not attempt. If many of these testings of the limits, in retrospect, turn out to be confidence games, it wasn't the original intention.

This makes sense. Americans were able to invent real estate swindles because they had an entire continent to steal from the aboriginal occupants and then to sell to each other as often as possible. McDougall's history of the states which joined the union up to 1828 is an unrelenting history of real estate peculators. Even George Washington, his other qualities notwithstanding, had large interests in western real estate in his day.

As long as we focus on the real estate aspects, there's another author who gives extensive testimony to the creativity and invention of Americans. Hernando de Soto is a Peruvian engineer who wants to capitalize the third world. De Soto's book, The Mystery of Capital, spends a good deal of effort explaining how the property law of the United States was rewritten repeatedly by squatters as the "settlers" moved west and persuaded the law to recognize their possession was more than nine-tenths of anything that mattered. We're still sorting out some of these creativities here in New Mexico, where much of the original Spanish land grants were converted to Anglo real estate.

It seems that Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture, which I have not yet had the pleasure of reading, is arguing for a similar American creativity in both the enclosure and liberation of intellectual property rights. On the one hand, he notes the "piratical" origins of Hollywood, which relocated from New York to the left coast to elude enforcement of Edison's moving picture patents. On the other hand, he rails against the attempts of big media to carve their property rights out of the commonwealth.

I also find echoes of this idea in Louis Menand's story of the pragmatists: Holmes, Peirce, James and Dewey.

Looking over the list at left, I have to wonder whether the Americans really deserve all the credit. A lot of the words to the left are obviously English English. The English had already enclosed the commons, forced marginal tenants off the land, and had their South Sea Bubble by the time the Americans had barely gotten started. One could further argue that this was neither a peculiarly British nor an American enterprise. The Oxford English Dictionary tells that the word swindle itself comes from the German schwindeln.

Whether we call this a purely American speciality or decide to spread the blame more widely, it is clear that the Americans have not been slackers. It is also clear that there are more varieties of swindle than there are of snow.

So, what happens when you take this American unbridled "opportunity to pursue ambitions" and encode its principles into an international telecommunication network designed to route its way around congestion, censorship, legal niceties, ethical qualms, and obstructions of any other kind? Easy, right? You get a world that's learning a more than a few new words connoting swindle, and teaching us some new ones, too. The internet has given the world "more opportunity to pursue their ambitions by fair means or foul", and they've taken the bait.

Nigerian 419 scams, Romanian teenagers running fraudulent auctions on EBay, phishers counterfeiting every webpage that might reasonably request a credit card number, the Russian mafia colonizing residential broadband connections, the Phatbot worm with it's p2p network for distributing DDOS commands among its peers, the netsky/bagle/mydoom virus writing olympics delivered to your inbox fresh each morning, the witty worm eating up all of the vulnerable firewalls in the world in about 30 minutes, and ..., and ..., and whatever turns up next, which has probably been posted to Slashdot while I was writing this.

Call it spam, or scam, or spyware, or virus, or worm. It may be deplorable, but it's also a triumph of the American way. For every scheme that's clearly crossed over to the dark side of human intercourse, there are another dozen which are clearly or arguably okay, or perhaps only slightly nauseating. There are, after all, a lot of Americans who find marketing, ie the persuasion of people that they need to consume, a somewhat dubious activity.

So, remember, never give a sucker an even break. They are the only natural resource which we cannot exhaust.

Reading List
Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Volume 1.
Fernand Braudel, The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Volume 2.
Fernand Braudel, The Perspective of the World: Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century Volume 3.
Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity.
David Liss, A Conspiracy of Paper.
David Liss, The Coffee Trader.
Walter A. McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner : A New American History: 1585-1828.
Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America.
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else.