I haven’t been following the X-factor/Rage Against the Machine story, but it’s one of those things that filter through even if you aren’t the least bit interested in it, and the headlines this morning make it unmissable.
Even so, the only real interest I have in the story is that it’s triggered a memory of being asked by a Swedish friend’s son, back in the early Nineties, what Rage Against the Machine meant.
As is almost always the way when a foreign language speaker asks for an explanation or translation of an apparently simple phrase, the answer can become boringly complex. But it does draw attention to the wonders of the English language.
How do we explain Rage? Is it a noun meaning something similar to anger, or is it a verb in the imperative mood? Is the band name a noun phrase or is it a call to action? And, whichever it is, what is the Machine, the object of the anger? Is it a reference to industrialisation and technology, or a metaphorical reference to the bureaucratic system?
If the name is a call to action, are we being encouraged to take Luddite action and smash our computers or to protest against red tape and political machinations?
A glance at Wikipedia and the band’s website with its pictures of el Che and The Anarchist Cookbook, makes it clear that it’s social activism and political protest that is the goal. But back in 1992 it wasn’t that easy to find such information, and the potential ambiguity was far greater.
I don’t think the lad who asked was interested in my raving about the multi-functionality of English words, so I didn’t go on to tell him that, at least for me, the name also triggered an association with Dylan Thomas’s villanelle. He was clearly disgusted at my inability to offer a simple and direct answer to what he saw as a simple question. Still, when he wandered off to his room to listen to his heroes, I’m pretty sure his mother and I settled down to enjoy a linguistic and literary discussion.