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Mail-Call SigAlerts: Readers Note Omissions and Failures

June 25, 1991|JACK SMITH

In writing recently about such expressions as "a hot cup of coffee" (instead of "a cup of hot coffee") I gave an inadequate definition and etymology of the word SigAlert , commonly heard in radio stations' traffic reports.

I quoted Bill (Skinny) Keene, traffic reporter for KNX-AM, as saying that a SigAlert is broadcast to alert motorists to a traffic closure, though in the beginning a SigAlert meant any kind of big news story involving the police.

Keene also mentioned that the term was derived from Loyd (Sig) Sigmon, chief engineer at KMPC in 1955 when he thought up what was to become known as the SigAlert, but I neglected to pass this on.

Walter H. Roeder, a librarian at Cal Poly Pomona, notes that the story of Sigmon's invention was thoroughly recalled by Times staff writer Bob Pool in The Times of March 15, only a few weeks before my column.

John B. Kemper of Kemtelcom telecommunications consultants recalls that he was a broadcast station inspector for the FCC in 1955 when Sigmon had his brainstorm. It required the police to "push a button" activating a recorder in radio stations whenever an emergency bulletin was broadcast over the police system.

"The police called the system the 'Sigmon traffic alert,"' recalls Kemper, "which, of course, soon became SigAlert. . . . SigAlert is now, I believe, a fairly universal system, but the police agencies still make the determination which situations are designated as SigAlerts. I believe they still are reserved for traffic problems of significance."

As Pool observed, "Freeway congestion was rare in those days (1955) unless there was a crash. That made freeway wrecks, which were investigated by the Los Angeles Police Department, big news." (By the way, Pool's story was based on an interview with Sigmon, then 81.)

I also failed my readers in defending such phrases as "a hot cup of coffee" and "a cold stein of beer," which reader Allen Kramer argued should be "a cup of hot coffee" and "a stein of cold beer."

I should have remembered that there is a term for such constructions. "These are examples," writes James E. Brodhead of Sherman Oaks, "of a perfectly legitimate rhetorical figure called metonymy--the substitution of the name or attribute of one thing for that of another."

Brodhead points out that "the kettle is boiling" is another example. "And I doubt," he observes, "that The Times or any other news medium could function without the most pervasive example nowadays of 'the White House' as a synonym for the President or his staff."

"Modern English: A Glossary of Literature and Language" (Grosset & Dunlap) by Lazarus, MacLeish & Smith, defines metonymy as "a device of figurative language in which an attribute or associated thing is substituted for the usual name of a thing: the blue for the sky, the White House for the President, the press for newspapermen, the campus for the school, the Crown for the King, the devil for mischief, the gas for accelerator pedal, eye for look at, finger for touch, stomach for digest, hammer for pound. . . ."

Brodhead also chides me for using gourmet in writing of hot dogs and mustard that "no gourmet feast can match it."

"Oh, please!" he begs. " Gourmet was originally a noun taken from the French, meaning a person who likes and is a judge of fine food and drink, similar to an epicure or a gastronome. Now it has not only been turned into an adjective, but vulgarized to describe only food that is complicated to prepare, costly, and even pretentious or ostentatious. A true gourmet appreciates appropriate food in an appropriate setting as long as it's well-prepared, whether a hot dog with all the fixing's at a ball park or a coulibiac of salmon at a luxurious restaurant. Please help me slap down this lazy use of gourmet as an adjective, especially to describe anything that takes more than five minutes or three ingredients to prepare, or that costs more than $10 a serving."

I agree with Brodhead that gourmet as an adjective is repulsive. However, it has its value, at least for me. When used to describe a restaurant or a particular dinner it causes me to lose my appetite. It is a warning of pretentious and expensive food. It was certainly out of place in my comment about hot dogs.

Meanwhile, Don Payne of Anaheim is puzzled by the apparent lack of a word to describe a speech that appeals to passion rather than to reason. "Perhaps there is such a word," he says, "but, if so, I have been unable to find it."

The word is demagoguery . According to Webster's New World, the noun demagogue means "a person who tries to stir up the people by appeals to emotion, prejudice, etc., in order to win them over quickly and so gain power."

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