Mind your language

There’s a lot of interrogating going on – and not just by policemen

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

My husband sat in his usual chair, interrogating the contents of his whisky glass with his old, tired nose. In 20 years’ time that sentence may seem normal. To me it seems at best whimsical, perhaps arch.

There’s a lot of interrogating at the moment, quite apart from the traditional kind by unpleasant policemen. Jay Rayner, in the Observer, said that he saw some people in a restaurant interrogate their plates. In the Guardian someone suggested we should ‘interrogate the things that make us want to drink too much’. In the Guardian again someone else declared: ‘It’s important to challenge and interrogate sexist beauty ideals, of course.’ Of course.

These examples take up different aspects of the normal meaning of interrogate and use them metaphorically. The plates are not so much questioned as examined. The things that make us want to drink are examined too, and perhaps analysed. Sexist ideals may be questioned.

The metaphor can drift into cliché. In the Guardian, someone wrote about the need to ‘interrogate the question of beauty in the built environment’. It’s hard to interrogate a question.

Interrogate developed its current meaning slowly from radio technology. In the 1890s, Sir Oliver Lodge gave the name coherer to a glass cylinder containing metal filings that detected electromagnetic waves. A few years later, a similar device using a liquid electrolyte was called a responder. By the end of the second world war, transponders received pulses or challenges and automatically sent out a reply to the interrogator. In 1945, the way that radio pulses interrogated the responder was explained in Nature by Sir Robert Watson-Watt. This quizzical Scottish pioneer of radar described himself memorably in 1948 as ‘56, five foot six, an unlucky 13 stone, tubby if you want to be unkind, chubby if you want to be a little kind, fresh complexioned, organically sound and functionally fortunate, if fat, after a 30-years’ war of resistance to taking exercise’.

Once computing got going, interrogation was used for a similar process of prompting computer memories so they give out signals revealing information stored in them. That is not quite what one does to a plate of salt beef.

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