Esteem and Ratchet

By Maeve Maddox

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Esteem
An old-movie buff, I recently watched White Heat (1949) for the second time and wanted to know more about the making of it. I found an excellent review, but my inner language nerd puzzled over the use of the word esteem in the following comment:

Once Cody lands himself in prison by his own esteem, the U.S. Treasury arranges for undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) to share Cody’s cell and determine the identity of Cody’s fence.

Played by James Cagney, Cody Jarrett is a psychopathic killer. During a train robbery, he kills two engine drivers. When the police are close to arresting him for these murders, he flees to another state and confesses to a non-capital crime that he committed there. He is sentenced to prison for the lesser crime, thus avoiding the death penalty.

Try as I might, I could not come up with any possible meaning of esteem that would fit its use in the article.

Merriam-Webster defines the noun esteem as “the regard in which one is held.” Some synonyms for esteem
:
respect
admiration
acclaim
approbation
appreciation
favor
recognition
honor
reverence
estimation
regard
opinion

A word that would fit with what Cody did is volition.

Deriving from Latin volo, “I will,” volition refers to an act that is the result of a conscious decision, an exercise of a person’s will. Cody turns himself in to the police. He “lands himself in prison of his own volition.”

Ratchet
Another word choice that sounded the linguistic alarm recently was that of rachet in the following sentence:

The horrifying irony, the hideous ratchet, is that the more America is besieged by senseless violence, the more the paramilitary wing of the American right is strengthened.

This is from a NYT opinion piece responding to a recent school shooting.
I read the sentence several times. Initially, I thought that the writer had used ratchet in place of some other, similar word—racket, perhaps.

It’s not as if I’d never seen the word before. Ratchet (also spelled rachet), was already in my vocabulary—both noun and verb.

ratchet (noun): A series of angular teeth on the edge of a bar, the rim of a wheel, etc., into which a cog, tooth, pawl or similar part may engage, typically in order to prevent reversed motion in a mechanism.

ratchet (verb): to cause to move by steps or degrees—usually used with up or down.

I had no idea what kind of ratchet would be considered “hideous.” I thought it was simply an inoffensive tool with specific characteristics and uses.

The ratchet can only stop backward motion at discrete points.
A ratchet does allow a limited amount of backward motion.
Ratchet mechanisms are used in a wide variety of applications, such as clocks and caulking guns.

Used as a verb, ratchet is almost always accompanied by an adverb of direction.

On most reality shows, producers manipulate activities to ratchet up the drama.
Signs of a strong economy could lead the Fed to ratchet back its plans as well.
She doesn’t ratchet her I.Q. down 15 or 20 points to make the boys feel better.

After processing my understanding of ratchet as a verb, I finally understood what the writer meant. She was thinking of the step-by-step increase of violence in American daily life.

Next time, I’ll understand what a writer means with an unmodified figurative use of the noun ratchet.

However, when a writer uses ratchet as noun to convey a progressive increase or decrease, it’s only fair to anchor the noun with some clue to that meaning. For example:

The horrifying irony, the hideous upward ratchet, is that the more America is besieged by senseless violence, the more the paramilitary wing of the American right is strengthened.

All the same, it seems to me that it would be clearer to make the verb into a gerund:

The horrifying irony, the hideous ratcheting up, is that the more America is besieged by senseless violence, the more the paramilitary wing of the American right is strengthened.

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4 Responses to “Esteem and Ratchet”

  • ApK

    The “esteem” thing has be baffled. Perhaps the writer confused “by his own steam” which is sort of an idiom for “by his own volition,” and esteem and came up with that odd phrase.

    The ratchet thing, I get, and I think the original version works better than the proposed alternatives. The writer seems to be referring to the hideous ratchet as a metaphorical mechanism, a noun, not an action. A hideous ratchet would be a tool–a ratchet–that does hideous work. I’m sure there are lots of other examples …cleansing fire, bitter pill, etc.

  • Tim Slager

    Once again, brilliant!

    “hideous ratchet” brings to mind Charlie Chaplin’s ‘In Modern Times”

  • Maeve

    AprK,
    I see what you mean about the “hideous ratchet.” It wouldn’t have occurred to me, but I can see how some readers would see it that way.

  • Maeve

    Tim,
    Thanks.
    Yes, now that you mention it, the image leaps into my mind. That certainly supports the way AprK interpreted it.

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