Getting Soft

Andersons“But soft, what light from yonder window breaks?” croons young Romeo. Generations of high-school students have puzzled over what he meant, perhaps most of all over that “but soft.”

Shakespeare’s romantic Veronese is saying something  like “Hang on a minute” or “Hey, look!” He’s not particularly interested in softness.

But we are,  at least by the evidence of contemporary usage. The word soft has an extraordinary range of meanings and uses in English—pleasant, unmanly, untested, agreeable are just a few. It would be impossible to drive our STEM-y curricular self-examination without the idea of “soft science” (the OED dates the usage to 1966). It would be difficult, too, to run a political campaign without accusing the other guy of being soft on crime.

The American obsession with material softness as a sign of luxury is a postwar mark of upward mobility and dreams of comfort, as surely as cashmere has replaced merino. “Softer than soft is Soft-Weve,” intoned one 1960s manufacturer of bathroom tissue. Our love for things soft is celebrated in the rituals of the bath, where softness is an American sacrament.

The jingle of the Mister Softee truck (“the creamiest, dreamiest soft ice cream, you get from Mister Softee”) once drove adults to the brink of madness. In your neighborhood it may still.

Adult males may indulge in the fantasy of being hardbodies, but we all know better. William Burroughs’s The Soft Machine (1961) arrived in print just before I reached reading puberty. The soft machine to which Burroughs refers in his strange, writerly assemblage is the human body. The big, soft human interior is also the thing through which a miniaturized Raquel Welch and others took a fantastic voyage in a 1966 Hollywood caper. Welch’s character was The Magic School Bus’s Ms. Frizzle avant la lettre.

Burroughs wrote on drugs, but his prose isn’t any odder than the writings of the 17th-century English poet Phineas Fletcher, author of a quite bizarre work titled The Purple Island (1633). It’s a meditation on the human body (each man is a purple island, at least if turned inside out). I dare Hollywood to greenlight that one.

Bodies aren’t the only soft metaphors we live by. Recently I came across something in which the writer said he had a soft obligation to do something.

What might this mean? If an obligation is soft, is it an obligation at all? An American lawyer friend who is experienced in contract arcana told me he was unfamiliar with the phrase. British law, however, is different. There the term means something well beyond this blogger’s capacity to clarify, but it’s got to do with good faith and intention in legally binding agreements.

One of the remarkably durable uses of soft came from George W. Bush’s speechwriter Michael Gerson. He’s the wordsmith credited with the construction “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Unmoored from its politics, it’s a great turn of phrase, though Gerson also gave us “axis of evil,” the consequences of which we’re still undoing. (Note to self: Rhetoric counts. Context does, too.)

Gerson’s use of soft has had traction, and surely in ways its originator had not intended. Such is always the fate of language. My smart friend Siva Vaidhyanathan, at the University of Virginia, recently posted a Facebook comment about “the soft bigotry of bad infrastructure.” That phrase will stick with me. Let your city’s infrastructure go, and the seams of class and race become ever more visible; if you naturalize those seams, you’re doing bad work.

So what does soft do to a noun? An idea?

Soft things are almost things. A soft acceptance to a dinner at a restaurant that’s having a soft opening might be an almost yes to a bistro that’s almost ready for its public.

A soft commitment to give a lecture is something more than a maybe but less than a yes. If you’re arranging a lecture series, I promise you that a soft yes will give you more grief than a hard no.

One of the pleasures of language and language-watching is the chance to see words stretch, put on new clothes, get a little crazy, show up where you don’t expect them.

I don’t want to be too hard on soft, but I’ve got to ask: Do these emerging uses of soft clarify or obscure? Do we communicate better with soft signals?

P.S. to Juliets everywhere: If your Romeo says, “I’ll call you,” he’s entering into an obligation than which there is none softer.

You can follow me @WmGermano


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