Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Hey, What's The Deal?

"Deal" seems to be a word with multiple personalities. The OED online lists four separate noun-versions, with sub-definitions within those categories. The first version has something to do with portions or parts, such as a "deal" of land, as in a portion of land. The second version has more to do with sharing or transaction, and one species of this version historically has been used to refer to "transactions of a questionable nature," out of which sprang expressions like "raw deal" or "bad deal." But you can have good deals, too, of course: "We good a good deal on our new car." "Big deal" seems to be used largely in a sarcastically way: "You stepped on my toe." Answer: "Oh, big deal [get over it]."

"No deal" seems suggest, or perhaps even denote, "No, I do not wish to do business with you" or "No, we do not have an agreement."

Believe it or not, "deal" also was used to refer to sexual intercourse; the citations are to British texts from the late 1500's.

"Deal" can also refer to a slice of a log--but mainly pine or fir (soft wood). So when Wallace Stevens refers to a piece of "deal" furniture in his famous poem, "The Emperor of Ice Cream," he's referring to an inexpensive piece of furniture, such as a chest of drawers made of pine-wood. Of course, "deal" also means distribute--as in dealing cards, and as in the figurative "deal me in," meaning that one wishes to have a portion of some activity or enterprise distributed to him or her, or more specifically that one wants to join a card game and, presumably, is eager to distribute his or her money to others, under the pretense of "gambling." Casinos never gamble, of course. Their "deal" is to make money, steadily and predictably.

Persons in my parents' generation and films from that era seemed to like the expression, "Hey, what's the deal?!" It seemed to be a way of questioning inappropriate behavior, to let somebody know you noticed something wrong. "What's the big idea?" seemed to be a cousin to this expression. "Hey, Bub [or Buster], what's the big idea?" That sounds so Forties to me.

Sometimes people seem to identify their employment or type of business by using the word "deal": "I deal strictly in commercial real estate." "We deal in higher-end jewelry." "I just did a deal in Colorado, as a matter of fact." Ah, to do a deal.

In professional sports, when one player is "traded" to another team, sportscasters (and what a word sportscaster is!) often report, "He was dealt to the Phillies from San Francisco," almost as if the player were flung across the continent like a playing-card; well, I suppose in some ways he was.

My father tended to refer to people who seemed suspiciously busy and self-important as "wheeler-dealers." Somebody who was slick, who had something to sell, and/or who seemed to be involved in many things but not to do much real work--this was the classic "wheeler-dealer," in his world-view. At some point, you could count on my father also observing, mildly, without anger, that this "wheeler-dealer" was also "full of bullshit." This is a very complicated condition, metaphorically, to be a wheeler-dealer full of bullshit. It's quite a burden, really.

In the following poem, "deal" refers to an implied transaction, a business-deal of sorts, really the ultimate contract :

What The Deal Is, Apparently

I did not know it then, but
as I was being biologically
conceived and cellularly developed,
I was borrowing my one and only
life. By being born and continuing
to be, I signed a contract with
eternity. In return for one life, I
agreed to live it, receiving rights,
privileges, wretchedness, befuddlement,
appetites, and terror pertaining
thereunto. This life is the only
situation I, in my one-time capacity
as me, will know. The whole
set-up seems bizarre, but there is
no other, according to the contract.
This is the deal.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom
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