Dancing without clarity

Here's the lead of a story in Wednesday's New York Times:

BEIJING — In what has become a familiar vocal pas de deux, Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled Uighur leader, stepped off a plane in Tokyo on Tuesday and immediately began accusing the Chinese government of secretly executing members of the Uighur minority and illegally detaining hundreds of others.

The OED defines pas de deux as "a dance for two people. In extended use: a partnership or liaison between two people, countries, etc., especially one which is difficult to initiate or requires careful handling."

I've said before that I can be a fan of sending people to the dictionary, but I usually like that to be accompanied by a hint of context or to greatly add something to the story.

In this case, I don't think that exists. Even if you know what a pas de deux is, it's not clear here what the two-sided relationship is. Is it that of Kadeer and whatever country she has visited? That doesn't seem likely, since it's a "vocal pas de deux," and the host country isn't doing any talking. The same goes for a pas de deux between her stepping off the plane and starting to attack China, since the plane obviously isn't talking. So is it between her two accusations, that of executions and detentions? That seems to be the most likely explanation.

But saying pas de deux in that case doesn't add anything to a person's understanding. It smacks of either showing off or of trying to spice up a lead that doesn't have a lot of action. If the goal was the latter, I think this fails because it just clouds the introduction to what was a pretty interesting story about Kadeer. There would have been nothing wrong with something like "BEIJING -- In what has become a familiar greeting ... " And China's detentions and executions don't so much have a relationship as they are part of the same policy of human-rights violations.

The New York Times is a more challenging paper when it comes to the language it uses, and that's great. But this goes a bit above and beyond, especially in a news story.

Here are two quotations from the OED where pas de deux is used to better effect. You still might have to look it up, but the definition is immediately applicable to what you just read:

  • 1973 Times Literary Supplement 26 Oct. 1324/1 Between them they perform a ritual examination of conscience, a pas de deux in which they are painfully at cross-purposes.
  • 2001 Science 10 Aug. 1034/2 Researchers have identified several critical steps in the delicate pas de deux between HIV and the cells it infects.

Here's the American Heritage Dictionary etymology: "French : pas, step + de, of, for + deux, two."