I occasionally come upon an unfamiliar word or phrase that particularly tickles my fancy. Today's example, courtesy of an old and well-read friend, is sockdolager.
A sockdolager is a hard hit, knockout or finishing blow or remark; something exceptional or outstanding.
As in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckelberry Finn: "The thunder would go rumbling and grumbling away,..and then rip comes another flash and another sockdolager."
J.R. Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (1848) offers us another related usage, one hopes for the sake of the fish among us referring to an obsolete instrument: "Socdolager, a patent fish~hook, having two hooks which close upon each other by means of a spring as soon as the fish bites."
I discovered from the Online Etymology Dictionary that sockdologising "was nearly the last word President Abraham Lincoln heard. During the performance of Tom Taylor's 'Our American Cousin,' assassin John Wilkes Booth (who knew the play well) waited for the line 'Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologising old man-trap,' and as the audience laughed, Booth fired the fatal shot."
Another use of the term is in a tale told by Davy Crockett during his years as a member of Congress. He characterized as sockdolagers two comments addressed to him by a learned farmer and constituent, one Horatio Bunce, who persuaded Crockett that he had inadvertently violated the Constitution by his support of a bill passed by the House of Representatives in the preceding year. It's a good story, and may be found here.
Reflecting on the sentencing three days ago of Anders Behring Breivik, I was struck once again by the humanity of the Norwegian system of justice, particularly when compared to that of the United States.
Lisa Guenther is an associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University and the author of a forthcoming book, Social Death and Its Afterlives: A Critical Phenomenology of Solitary Confinement. Her essay is reprinted from The New York Times of 26 August 2012.
There are many ways to destroy a person, but the simplest and
most devastating might be solitary confinement. Deprived of meaningful
human contact, otherwise healthy prisoners often come unhinged. They experience
intense anxiety, paranoia, depression, memory loss, hallucinations and other
perceptual distortions. Psychiatrists call this cluster of symptoms SHU
syndrome, named after the Security Housing Units of many supermax prisons.
Prisoners have more direct ways of naming their experience. They call it “living death,” the “gray box,” or “living in a black hole.”
In June the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil
Rights, and Human Rights, headed by Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of
Illinois, held the first Congressional
hearing on solitary confinement. Advocates and experts in the
field were invited to submit testimony on the psychological, ethical, social
and economic issues raised by punitive isolation. Among the many
contributors was Anthony Graves, who spent over 18 years on
death row in Texas, most of them in solitary confinement, for a crime he did
not commit. Graves describes his isolation as a form of “emotional
torture.” Two years after his exoneration and release, he still feels
trapped in isolation: “I am living amongst millions of people in the world
today, but most of the time I feel alone. I cry at night because of this
feeling. I just want to stop feeling this way, but I haven’t been able
We tend to assume that solitary confinement is reserved for “the
worst of the worst”: violent inmates who have proved themselves unwilling or
unable to live in the general population. But the truth is that an inmate
can be sent to the hole for failing to return a meal tray, or for possession of
contraband (which can include anything from weapons to spicy tortilla
chips). According to the Bureau of Justice, there were 81,622 prisoners in some form of “restricted housing” (code
for solitary confinement) in 2005. If anything, these numbers have
increased as isolation units continue to be built in prisons, jails and
juvenile detention centers across the country. Given that 95 percent of
all inmates are eventually released into the public, and that many of these
will be released without any form of transition or therapy, solitary
confinement is a problem that potentially affects every one of us.
In my own statement for the Senate subcommittee, I made a
philosophical argument against solitary confinement, drawing on my research in
phenomenology. Phenomenology is a philosophical method for uncovering the
structure of lived experience by describing what it is like from
a first person perspective. Rather than attempting to prove a set of
objective facts, phenomenology tracks the way that a meaningful experience
of the world emerges for someone in the total situation of their
Being-in-the-world. It’s not that facts are unimportant, but rather that
they are not meaningful in themselves; they become meaningful when they are
experienced bysomeone in relation to a wider context or
horizon. What happens when that horizon shrinks to the space of a 6-by-9
Consider the following testimony from prisoners interviewed by
the psychiatrist Stuart Grassian in Block 10 of Walpole Penitentiary in 1982:
I went to a standstill psychologically once —
lapse of memory. I didn’t talk for 15 days. I couldn’t hear
clearly. You can’t see — you’re blind — block everything out —
disoriented, awareness is very bad. Did someone say he’s coming out of
it? I think what I’m saying is true — not sure. I think I was
drooling — a complete standstill.
I seem to see movements — real fast motions in
front of me. Then seems like they’re doing things behind your back — can’t
quite see them. Did someone just hit me? I dwell on it for hours.
Melting, everything in the cell starts moving;
everything gets darker, you feel you are losing your vision.
I can’t concentrate, can’t read . . . Your
mind’s narcotized . . . sometimes can’t grasp words in my mind that I
know. Get stuck, have to think of another word. Memory is
going. You feel you are losing something you might not get back.
Deprived of everyday encounters with other people, and cut off
from an open-ended experience of the world as a place of difference and change,
many inmates lose touch with reality. What is the prisoner in solitary
confinement at risk of losing, to the point of not getting it back?
The prisoner in a control unit may have adequate food and drink,
and the conditions of his confinement may meet or exceed court-tested
thresholds for humane treatment. But there is something about the
exclusion of other living beings from the space that they inhabit, and the
absence of even the possibility of touching or being touched by
another, that threatens to undermine the identity of the subject. The
problem with solitary confinement is not just that it deprives the inmate of
her freedom. This harm is already inflicted by our prison system, and
depending on how you feel about justice and punishment, depriving people of
freedom may be justifiable. But prolonged isolation inflicts another kind
of harm, one that can never be justified. This harm is ontological; it
violates the very structure of our relational being.
Think about it: Every time I hear a sound and see another person
look toward the origin of that sound, I receive an implicit confirmation that
what I heard was something real, that it was not just my imagination playing
tricks on me. Every time someone walks around the table rather than
through it, I receive an unspoken, usually unremarkable, confirmation that the
table exists, and that my own way of relating to tables is shared by others.
When I don’t receive these implicit confirmations, I can usually ask someone —
but for the most part, we don’t need to ask because our experience is already
interwoven with the experience of many other living, thinking, perceiving
beings who relate to the same world from their own unique perspective.
This multiplicity of perspectives is like an invisible net that supports the
coherence of my own experience, even (or especially) when others challenge my
interpretation of “the facts.” These facts are up for discussion in the
first place because we inhabit a shared world with others who agree, at the
very least, that there is something to disagree about.
When we isolate a prisoner in solitary confinement, we deprive
them of both the support of others, which is crucial for a
coherent experience of the world, and also the critical challenge that
others pose to our own interpretation of the world. Both of these are
essential for a meaningful experience of things, but they are especially
important for those who have broken the law, and so violated the trust of
others in the community. If we truly want our prisons to rehabilitate and
transform criminal offenders, then we must put them in a situation where they
have a chance and an obligation to explain themselves to
others, to repair damaged networks of mutual support, and to lend their own
unique perspective to creating meaning in the world.
We ask too little of prisoners when we isolate
them in units where they are neither allowed nor obliged to create and sustain
meaningful, supportive relations with others. For the sake of justice,
not only for them but for ourselves, we must put an end to the over-use of
solitary confinement in this country, and we must begin the difficult but
mutually rewarding work of bringing the tens of thousands of currently isolated
prisoners back into the world.