Well, the worst I’ve ever seen anyway. In a review of a book in Sunday’s Times. The book under review was a book by Andrew Sullivan. Now Sullivan can be controversial, always interesting, never fatuous. But here is a direct quote from the book, reproduced in the review: ’ “Consider this hypothetical,” he famously wrote during Obama’s rise. “It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man – Barack Hussein Obama – is the new face of America. America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm.” ’
A logarithm? What can this possibly mean? Even had he said exponentially, I hate this kind of image, but I know what he meant. Had he said logarithmically, I would understand that he he had utterly misunderstood the term. But that doesn’t go far enough to explain what he did say.
(That quote also appeared in an article Sullivan wrote for the Atlantic. There is commentary all over the place about the article.)
Andrew Sullivan has no idea what a logarithm is. The only way to know what he meant was if you black out the word entirely then guess what might be there based on context.
Actually the whole sentence is a fucking disaster. What’s “soft power”? What’s “ratcheting”? What’s a “notch”?
If I were Sullivan’s editor I would have changed it to, “…influence has been raised not incrementally but by an order of magnitude.” And still I am not sure if he would be correct. At least the statement would make sense.
Soft power is a term that has been in common use in discussing international relations since the early '90s. When I was in grad school in the mid-late '90s, it was already a standard term, which was rarely defined in text because most writers assumed their readers were already familiar with it.
And “ratchet up a notch” is a pretty common metaphor.
Yes, I have used it myself, quite familiar with it. I also have ratchet wrenches so understand well where it comes from. But ratcheting is a process whereby something goes one direction and can’t reverse. In the context where Sullivan used it, it doesn’t make sense.
Sure, it doesn’t make much sense literally, but, I mean, it’s a metaphor. At this point, I think its use is common enough its not even really a metaphor anymore, it’s an idiom, which has become fairly divorced from its literal meaning.
I dunno, maybe my impression of the use of the phrase is idiosyncratic, but I think of “ratchet up a notch” or “ratchet down a notch” as being common metaphors, which just mean an incremental adjustment, not that the adjustment is irreversible.