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Archive for the 'Language in Politics' Category

The Lame Ducks of Washington

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

We now have quite a few lame ducks walking about Washington. I thought that a peculiar phrase, worth tracking down. So here is what I found.

First, referring to Congress as a whole as a “lame duck congress” was a misuse of the word, since those congressmen who were reelected are not lame ducks. So, this expression has taken on a slightly different meaning: a congress controlled by a party that loses control at the end of the year. This year neither house is a lame duck in this sense.

Recently this word’s meaning has expanded even more to the congress after elections but before the new congress is sworn in, whether its ducks are lame or not.

The term probably originates out on the high seas where it originally referred to a disabled ship or a ship damaged on the sea. The term duck makes more sense in this context.

If this is correct, then the term migrated from naval slang to financial slang, referring to a bankrupt investor or an investor in default of his debt at the exchange. At the stock exchange there are bulls, bears, and lame ducks, people who can not raise the liquidity to invest in any market. The carry-over sense is a financially wounded person who can’t keep up with the people who have their ducks in a row.

From the stock market the word then migrated to politics, where it is mostly used today. It is available outside politics, though, in reference to any thing or person who is disabled in any way. The American Heritage Dictionary says that it may refer to “an ineffective person; a weakling”.

Romnesia in the Lamestream Media

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

President Obama has introduced a new word into the political debate: romnesia. Romnesia is a good word, politically loaded in just the right way. It is better than the Repuslican near synonym, flip-flop, because flip-flop existed previous to the Bush – Kerry faceoff and when we hear this word we see a pair of plastic sandals. The runner-up comes from the last presidential campaign, Sarah Palin’s lamestream media, a blend of lame-brained and mainstream media.

Romnesia edges out lamestream media by a hair since it is a properly constructed single-word blend of Romny and amnesia. It really isn’t a strict synonym of flip-flop or even etch-a-sketch. Because of its implication of loss of memory, it has a jocular implication that Romney can’t keep up with where he stands on a particular issue from appearance to appearance.

All these words are all nonce words, of course, used for political purposes over the course of presidential campaigns. There is little chance that they will remain in the language after the election. (Flip-flop is the exception since it was in the language already.)

Quarreling, Arguing, and Debating

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

We have lost sight of the difference between argue and quarrel so much that we often use them as synonyms of one another. Arguing is reasoning based on facts; quarreling is wrangling angrily over personal preferences using facts or not.

We quarrel from entrenched positions; the winner of a quarrel is whoever shouts loudest. We argue to persuade the person we are talking to, to change their view; the winner is the one who has more of the facts supporting their side. When we quarrel we don’t care for facts. If the person we are quarreling with presents a fact that totally disproves our position, we try to weasel our way around it by not replying to the point or replying with a never-ending series of irrelevant points.

Debate raises the bar another notch. A debate has a referee and names for the logical faults or fallacies debaters make. The most obvious one that we see daily in US politics is the ad hominem “at the person” fallacy. This fallacy occurs when we not only do not address the point, but attack the character of its proponent. When Republicans ague against a Democratic proposal by claiming that Democrats are socialists and communists, they are arguing ad hominen, not arguing with facts, but hoping to divert the debate through guilt by association.

Some of the other names of fallacies found in quarreling and not arguing or debating, are (1) “begging the question”, assuming the proposition being proven in the arument, (2) “circularity”, arguing false relations, e.g. that because y comes later than x, y is caused by x, and (3) “bandwagoning”, arguing that everybody knows x, therefore x must be true.

So long as our politicians argue from unproven and unprovable facts (or outright lie about the facts), and use logical fallacies to divert attention from the points they are trying to make, they are just quarreling. We should stop calling these meetings among candidates debates and call them quarrels. Everything is for show in the primaries, letting the US electorate see who is the best actor, which candidate can best pretend to be intelligent.

Electile Dysfunction

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Perhaps we should move electile dysfunction from our Sniglets page to the dictionary.

Electile dysfuntion is defined as the inability to decide on a candidate. The peaking of each candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in the polls for one week is a classic symptom of this syndrome. Apparently, the Republicans are having a difficult time deciding who will be their candidate to run against President Obama in November of this year.

Who is Stealing ‘Kumbaya’?

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

kum-bah-yah • Hear it!

Meaning: 1. “Come by here” in the Negro spiritual “Kum Ba Yah, my Lord”. 2. Human spiritual unity, often used sarcastically.

Notes: We have finally solved the mystery of where this word comes from (click here). We are still struggling as to how to use it. It is associated with singing around a campfire while holding hands as a symbol of spiritual (or pious) unity. But now that meaning is widely used sarcastically by cynics who think human unity a pipe dream while the answer to our problems lies in meanness and anger.

In Play: Although kumbaya has been contaminated by the Washington press, we do not have to yield the meaning of this word to the cynics just yet: “We were lucky that all our good intentions led to a kumbaya spirit that helped us quickly settle the church’s business.” By the same token, we cannot ignore the current (mis)usage: “If the town council thinks there is some kumbaya solution of the downtown parking problem that will please everyone, they are naive, indeed.”

Word History: “Kumbaya, my Lord” was first recored in 1927. The song was sung in Gullah on the islands of South Carolina between Charleston and Beaufort. Gullah is the creole language featured in the Uncle Remus series of Joel Chandler Harris and the Walt Disney production of “Song of the South.” American missionaries took the song to Angola after its publication in the 1930s, where its origins were forgotten. In the early 1960s the song was rediscovered and made popular by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. It was quickly associated with the Civil Rights Movement and other liberal causes, which invited sarcastic use by conservatives.

Who is an American?

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

Gordon Precious, one of our Canadian subscribers, today wrote on a subject that constantly arises in writing the alphaDictionary website and the Good Words. Here is what he wrote:

On the subject of “Yankee” (July 3, 2011, Dr. Goodword), and with Canada’s national day, “Canada Day”, having just past on July 1st, (celebrating our 144th birthday. The United States of America is about to celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, (its 235th, I believe), it seems an appropriate time for me to raise an old question and slight grievance:

“Why do not the citizens of the United States of America have a singular, just appellation for themselves?”

Ever since I attended public school, here in Canada, over 80 years ago, I have considered myself to be an Old Glory“American”, inasmuch as I live in America – North America to be exact. I find that the citizens of Mexico, Central and South America also consider themselves “American”. It is quite common to see a sign on a storefront in Guatemala, Columbia, Chile, etc., “Compañía de Plomería Americano”, which is, of course, “American Plumbing Company”, but has no connection with the U.S.A.

It is my contention that the citizens of the United States of America have unwittingly usurped the name “American” from the rest of us Americans.

I would like the citizens of the United States of America to find, and develop the use of, a specific name for their nationality, as have the citizens of every other country of which I can think.

I generally agree and try to use awkward phrases like “people of the US” or “those of us in the US” instead of “American” whenever I can think of it. They are all awkward, though.

The problem is obvious to all: we have a queer name for a country. It is easy to call those from Canada Canadians, those from Mexico Mexicans, and those from Guatemala Guatemalans. But there is no word derivable from “The United States of America” in the same vein unless, of course, we take the last word in this phrase, “America”, and use Americans.

We might try building a word from an acronym, USans or USAsians. I’m sure these sound as bad to everyone else as they do to me. United Statesians not only sounds atrocious but is grossly ungrammatical. The best solution is the one we seem to have chosen, the one mentioned above, using the last word in the phrase, Americans.

I wouldn’t call such a selection “usurpation” of the term from other American nations, however. Using the same word to refer to the US and the Americas is simply another instance of polysemy, a word with more than one meaning. I personally think that, outside scientific terminology, there are no words with only one meaning, take for example cooler (noun and adjective), dresser (furniture and person), air (for breathing, for singing).

Nations generally do have distinct names that distinguish any one from the others. However, we even get polysemy among the names of nations: Turkey, China, Cyprus, Georgia, Jordan, and Jamaica are a few. We also find it among the personal nouns: Danish (pastry), Dutch (uncle), and Indian are a few of those. The fact that American falls into this category should not offend our neighbors in the other Americas.

So, I see no offense in the word America having referring to two geographical entities. All of the alternatives are worse.

Indians and Eskimos

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

My recent commentary on CNN.com was immediately criticized for my use of the term “Indians” to refer to North American Indians. I am not concerned since I have mentioned before the futility of hoping that by changing the name of something, we will cure all problems associated with it.

While language reflects the way we think (hence the substantial Word History in all our daily Good Words), it does not control the way we think, let alone behave. The native and immigrant Americans of European origin have done and continue to do great injustices to the American Indians throughout the Americas. However, changing the names of the victims does not end that injustice or the prejudices that lead to it.

I particularly avoid the term “Native American” since, well, I’m a native American, a native North American, to be exact, just as I am a native North Carolinian. The word native is based on the Latin past participle natus “born” and refers to where someone is born. A native American is someone who was born in America, nothing more. Capitalizing the phrase does not change its meaning nor the guilt felt by the more sensitive native Americans whose ancestry goes back to Europe.

We went through this with the word Eskimo, when some liberal linguist learned that it meant “blubber-eater” in a neighboring Indian language, and hence all Eskimos should be offended by it. Well, to the Eskimos of Alaska, none of whom spoke the offending language, Eskimo meant “Eskimo”, nothing more. It carried no pejorative connotation and they, in fact, preferred it to words like Inuit which means “person” in their native language. Well, yes, of course they are people. So are we, but we don’t call ourselves Persons to distinguish ourselves from Canadians and Mexicans.

Most North American Indians refer to themselves as Indians. The new Smithsonian Museum dedicated to their culture and history is the National Museum of the American Indian after seeking the advice of recently informed linguists, several of whom work there. Many other state and local museums are similarly named. True, we know now that the American Indians did not come from India, leading some to feel it necessary to add the epithet American to Indian when referring to them by their heritage, but American Indians are (American) Indians, and that is what distinguishes them from the cultures and histories of other native Americans.

NPR Interview: Sarah Palin’s Language

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Here is the complete (edited) transcript of my interview with Linton Weeks, national correspondent of NPR news, cited in his article, “It No Longer Takes @#$%& To Use ‘Foul’ Language”, that you may now read by clicking here.

(Weeks) I am thinking about trying to write something this morning about Sarah Palin’s use of the word “cojones” yesterday when talking about President Obama and the immigration issue. On Fox News she said that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer “has the cojones that our president does not have to look out for all Americans, not just Arizonans, but all Americans, in this desire of ours to secure our borders and allow legal immigration to help build this country, as was the purpose of immigration laws.”

(Weeks) That coarse language spoken by coarse people has entered popular American parlance is an old story. But coarse language spoken by proper, line-toeing people may be a new thing. Sarah Palin may be known for many attributes, but a foul mouth is not one of them.

Dr. Beard hiding under his new hat.(Beard) Clearly, in using this word she is appealing to the literate rednecks in the ultra-rightwing base. She is using an off-color euphemism for a vulgar word that would not be readily accessible to Tea Partiers, but you are right in suggesting this word may be spreading in the general population. On the other hand, she may be extending a tentacle to the Spanish-speaking population, which would be rather apropos for the subject she was speaking on.

(Weeks) Are we living in a new era when the idea of coarse language no longer exists?

(Beard) The 60s changed the attitude of many middle-of-the-roaders when the left-wing of political thinking in this country began insisting that unless freedom of speech is absolute, it is of no value. Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, the YIP and even, to some degree, the leadership of the SDS of the time made a point of using profanity as a test of the First Amendment. This loosened constraints in some registers of speech and some places (HBO, movies in general, porn sites on the Web, etc.) and that loosening is growing every day. While profanity is becoming acceptable in the speech of others, most English speakers still avoid it and I hear it mostly from people or characters who have rejected mainstream society. In principle, this represents no change except that today that body of people is much larger and forms its own society.

(Weeks) When a formerly taboo word is used by respectable people, is that when it enters the general lexicon?

(Beard) Using the formula “mainstream society” = “respectable people”, yes, that is true. That is the purpose of euphemisms like ‘cojones’, ‘screw’, ‘dump’, ‘pee’, ‘poop’. We even have a children’s book now called “Everybody Poops”, for which the film rights have been acquired. How mainstream can a word get?

(Weeks) Can you think of a few formerly edgy words that are now firmly in the mainstream?

(Beard) Actually, yes. When I was growing up ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ were as taboo are their off-color synonyms. One way to get around taboohood is to use a scientific term; science is good, right? We see this pushing of the envelope in TV ads, too: ads for “erectile dysfunction”, tampons, mini- and maxipads, medicines for vaginal conditions—even condoms for a while, were all prohibited when I was growing up in North Carolina. All of these ads imply things expressed by profanity in the general language yet, while the words are taboo, the subject matter is watched by “respectiable people”.

(Beard) I know respectable people (including my grandchildren) who use the medical terms as well as the “kiddy terms” (poop, tinkle). So we are inundated by the concepts in very respectable radio, newspaper, and TV ads, the words themselves occur in very respectable motion pictures about people on the other side of the respectability divide and, in fact, are used by our friends and acquaintances who occasionally step just just over that divide, today a rather wide gray area.

(Weeks) Does it help that Palin said that Brewer, a woman, has cojones? Does that lift the word out from the literal realm and place it in the metaphorical?

(Beard) Not usually. When we use the F-word metaphorically, it has the same effect as when we use it literally. People who would not talk about f…ing in the literal sense, also avoid that word in the metaphorical sense, e.g. Woody Allen’s famous line in (I think) “Everything you Always Wanted to Know about Sex.” In that film he claimed to be doing the same thing to a girl that the president was doing to the country, avoiding the F-word equally in either sense. Given all the other sources (mentioned above) for these words, I would expect Palin’s use of them to whiz past most ears unnoticed. Here is the reasoning:

  • If the concepts are not taboo (TV ads, medical terms, kiddie terms),
  • And the words themselves occur all around us, and in any realistic movie or TV show about those beyond the respectability divide,
  • What could be wrong with the taboo words themselves, let alone the euphemisms like ‘cojones’?

(Beard) We are living in an era of tremendous upheaval, change on a scale and at a speed never experienced before. Everyone can now publish his or her ideas as fast as they can type them out and click “publish”. What is amazing to me is that there is anyone left who considers profanity profane at all.

(Beard) Here is why I think the attitudes of folks like you and me persist. Words, as we all know, are associations of (linguistic) sound with meanings. However, the concepts (meanings) of vulgar words are not taboo, as the TV ads and medical terms I mention above point out. It is the sounds of these words alone that is profane or off-color. That is why they are taboo in either their literal or figurative senses.

(Beard) It is the sound itself of these words that connect them directly to our sense of shame, our moral sense, our sense of right and wrong. So all we have to do is substitute a different sound (cojones, screw, crap) and, in most cases, we distance ourselves enough from our sense of shame to get by. Those who use the originals have to lose or ignore that sense of shame—assuming they were raised to have one.

(Weeks) Thank you so much.

Taking ‘Tea Party’ Back

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Eloise blowing raspberries at political tea-partiersMy wife loves nothing more than outfitting our grand- daughters (and, more recently, grandson) and taking them out to tea when we visit them in Denver. In fact, on our last visit her birthday party was a tea party with both our sons and their families at the lovely House of Commons tea shop in downtown Denver. It was a huge affair attended by all, even three-month-old Eloise (seen at the left in her special tea-party dress blowing raspberries at anyone who would sully the expression “tea party” with politics).

The term “tea party” already has a pleasant, totally apolitical meaning that has been around for centuries. Our founding fathers used it in jest in referring to their very specific political attack as “The Boston Tea Party”. The use was a joke in good taste and the use of the word “tea” was relevant.

The term is now being sullied by corporate forces having nothing whatsoever to do with tea, nothing to do with the independence of the United States, and with undertones of skullduggery that the tender thoughts of kindness and civility associated with tea parties do not deserve.

I know this is a lone voice in the wilderness and after the midterm elections the misuse of this breath of lexical and social loveliness will probably fade from the air waves. However, I wish to engage the same rights of free speech as the political “Tea Partiers” claim and register my dismay at the corruption of this innocent expression of social civility that raises such fond memories for most of us.

Black and White and Gray (Grey)

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

As the racism begins to boil to the surface of US politics again, I am reminded of a conversation I had with my brother-in-law on my last visit to North Carolina. I am, of course, the black sheep of the family, voting for the Obama in the last election. My brother-in-law, living in a sea of Republicans in rural NC, rather than avoid discussing politics with me, brought up the point, “Well, Obama’s as much white as he is black, isn’t he?”

My brother-in-law’s perspective may be spreading; witness the fact that North Carolina voted for Obama in the 2008 elections. On the surface, the remark makes clear that racism remains a real if fading political factor in the US. What interests me, though, is a deeper, more subtle semantic question at issue here: Why is a person who is half white and half black, black? Why is Halle Berry the first “African American” female actor to receive an Academy Award? Why is President Obama a black president? Where is the logic here?

So it is in the US: if you are any part African American, you are African American. If you have just a few drops of African blood in you and you call yourself white, you are “passing” for white, the word passing implying deception. Why is a person who is 1/16 African and 15/16 European deceiving people that he or she is  white? You can only get 1/16 whiter. Why isn’t a person who is 1/16 white and 15/16 black, “passing” for black? In other words, why doesn’t the majority win in determining race as it does in determining elections?

I always taught my students that the language we speak does not determine our attitudes; however, our attitudes are reflected in how we speak. The definitions of black and white in US politics tell a sad tale of how we still think of the races in the US. So what is president Obama? Simple. He is a man.