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Archive for the 'Language in Politics' Category

Searching for Obama in his Name

Monday, October 20th, 2008

President Barack ObamaThe Republican presidential campaign seems to be attempting to raise fears of an Obama presidency by references to his names. His middle name, Hussein, is an easy key to associate with Sadam Hussein, so long as no one remembers King Hussein of Jordan, long one of our strongest supporters.

Senator Obama’s first name, however, is far more interesting if wholly and totally unrelated to his character and presidential campaign. My friend Paul Ogden did a little basic research on this name. The results were so fascinating that I couldn’t resist doing a bit on my own and reporting the results here.

The basic Semitic (Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew) meaning of barak is “blessing”. It is a word that appears in the Old Testament more than 300 times. But did you know about the ancient Semitic tradition of sealing a successful business deal or other negotiation with an exchange of gifts, called al-baraka “the blessing” in Arabic.

The Spaniards adopted the practice during the Moorish Period of their history, referring to the gift with the Arabic word, which became albaroque in Spanish. This word then appeared in Ango-Norman (French spoken in England) as abrocour and brocour which, by folk etymology, eventually became broker, something we would hope any US president would be good at. Diamond brokers around the world today seal their deals with a handshake and proclaiming mazel and brocha “luck and a blessing”, brocha being a variant of barak(a).

One of the best brokers in US history was Bernard Baruch, who later became one of the most trusted advisors of President Franklin Roosevelt, the last president called upon to save the US from a financial crisis. Baruch means “blessed” and is the past passive participle of baraka “to bless”. (Baruch is famous for saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”)

The Semitic root of baraka is brk. (In the Semitic languages, the various forms of word are created by changing the vowels in the root.) We find the same the word in the last name of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. Many linguists think that brk descended from krb. If so, Barak is also related to the source of the English word cherub, about as far away from a terrorist as we can get. 

Change or Reform?

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

McCain-ObamaAn interesting development has arisen in the two political campaigns in the United States. Senator Barack Obama has been running a campaign on the platform of bringing change to the US government. Senator McCain has recently shifted the focus of his campaign to reform. The difference in meaning of these two words, change and reform, could be critical to the decision reached in the November presidential election.

Change means to shift to something different but reform means to improve on what is already in place. Senator McCain has been a consistent supporter of deregulation, privatization, and the war in Iraq, policies Senator Obama promises to end outright. The term reform suggests that McCain wishes to continue with these policies but with, as Governor Palin recently put it, some “shakin and fixin”.

I find the distinction reflected in the careful choices of these words interesting.


Of Rubes and Reubens

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

Carol Hood wrote just the other day with a cry for lexical help:

Duhhhh“I have recently been quietly informed that I used a racial slur in casual conversation. Needless to say I was appalled! PLEASE explain to me how the word rube when used to denote a rustic or unsophisticated person is a slur! We were with some Jewish friends and my helpful friend said I had used an ethnic slur…something about the origin of this word and the usually Jewish name, Reuben. She then alluded to the gradeschool song ‘Reuben, Reuben, I’ve been thinking’ as a racially charged song in the same vein as rube. HELP!!”

There is no doubt that rube comes from Reuben for the word Reuben itself was used at the beginning of the 19th century to refer to yokels. Reuben is a Jewish name. However, Jews were never farmers in American and this term clearly originated as a derogatory reference to sod-busters (there’s a sure slur for you) in the US and Canada. No semantic connection.

It did not come from the circus term rube used in the circus May-day cry, “Hey, Rube!” referring to local yokels,  either. Reuben was used in this sense at least 80 years before the circus term appeared. The circus seems to have gotten its term from the same source.

I thought it might have originally been applied to the Pennsylvania Dutch farmers since Reuben is also sort of a German name However, it is not a common name among the PA Germans.

If all words implying that a person is ignorant, true or false, are slurs, this word is a slur. But if no one—including Jewish etymologists—can show that this word is related to a Hebrew name for sure, and some people deserving of the epithet do in fact exist, how can it be taken as an anti-Semitic slur?

The Earmarks on Pork Barrels

Monday, September 15th, 2008

So what are earmarks, anyway? We hear more and more about them as the presidential election in the US rolls on. No, they are not how to tell if a politician is fooling around with another man or woman. Earmarks are projects funded by the state or federal government in a specific district, usually at the bequest of the congressman representing that district. An earmarked project may be a good or bad one; presumably most are good.

The word today is being used as a synonym for a pork-barrel project, a wasteful if not useless federally or state funded project. Male and female congressmen sometimes use their committee appointments to add “fat” to the federal budget via projects that benefit few people and cost much tax-payer money. These projects are referred to by the mass noun pork, known for its high fat content, or pork barrel.

Some national candidates are running on a ticket of reducing or ending earmarks. The latter means ending all state or federally funded projects for specific districts. Since the function of a member of the House of Representatives is to represent his or her district, ending or even unreasonably reducing legitimate earmarks to a district would be poor representation. Not a good idea. We need to remind ourselves of the distinction between earmarks and pork barrel projects.

Dr. Goodword on Swiftboating

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

SwiftboatMy definition of the verb to swiftboat as “To powerfully blindside and undermine someone with false or misleading attacks on their character or background” resulted in an unusually heavy load of complaints. Some accused me of political bias, others simply pointed out that the basis of the swift boat ads against Senator Kerry in 2004 were either true or were not proven false. Since it is always interesting to watch new words find their way into our vocabulary, I thought I would share my response with everyone.

After reviewing my research, I couldn’t find anything gravely at fault in the definition (though I have ameneded it slightly). Many apparently thought I was defining the swift boat incident of the 2004 election itself. I wasn’t. I was defining the verb (not even the noun) to swiftboat and even chose to close the gap between the two words to make that clear. Nothing in my defintion bears on the truthfulness of the swift boat ads of the 2004 presidential campaign. I only wrote about the meaning of the verb to swiftboat today, 2008.

Since only the very unreliable Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary had even ventured a definition for this word, I did most of my research on the uses of the word on the Web. I searched the word swiftboated to make sure I had only verbs in my sample. I tried to determine what the writers of sentences like these had in mind using the verb:

  • How McCain will be Swiftboated.
  • They swiftboated the Gold Star mom on the news by questioning her credibility when she refused to back off with her antiwar protest….
  • Stéphane Dion gets swiftboated by an oily Peter Puck.
  • Fox suggests swiftboat author being swiftboated himself.
  • Science swiftboated in ‘Expelled’.

I could not find room to believe these and hundreds of other authors meant “had the truth told about them” in using this term.

In all the related articles the word was being used negatively—whether truthfully or not. The authors of all these web texts intended that something bad was done to whomever was swiftboated. Regardless of whether the statements are true or not, the intent of the writer is to denote that truth was subverted, not exposed. I don’t see any other interpretation.

The meanings of words begin changing as soon as they are used. Disease is no longer semantically related to ease, business no longer has any business with busy, atonement is unrelated today to one. I think the meaning of the verb to swiftboat may still be in a state of flux but I only did this word because it seems to be stabilizing and gaining great popularity. For sure its meaning now is independent of the meaning of its origin.

More on Superdelegates

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

LanguageLog has been slow to publish my responses to Benjamin Zimmer’s research on the word ‘superdelegate’, so I will try to recall the my last one here. I think the issue is both imporant and a (socio)linguistic one, since language is the primary tool of politicians and news broadcasters, a tool used to shape public opinion.  Public opinion, of course, determines the kind of government and future we have.  But language is at the core of this issue.

The point I’ve been making doesn’t really rest on how long the word superdelegate has been in the language. I should have looked it up just for historical curiosity and spent the time Mr. Zimmer did to protect my argument against understandable comments like these and his. However, I remain convinced that my point is a solid one.

Mr. Zimmer now has published a time-line of the word superdelegate showing a quantum leap in usage this year—very close to my claim that it only appeared this year. However, he interprets this as simply a reflection of the tightness of the race this year. But that does not explain the choice of the word superdelegate over neutral terms like unpledged delegate. My point, remember, is that this choice of words is not coincidental.

This year the word has been used in the media in one connection only: the fear that superdelegates would override the ‘will of the people’ as expressed in the primaries and caucuses. (Google ‘superdelegates will of the people’ to see what I mean.)  This leaves the impression that superdelegates are somehow more powerful, that their votes count more than those of pledged delegates. Moreover, it is a threat to the ‘will of the people’, something we seem still to hold sacred despite the aftermath of the 2004 election.

My question is this: why does the current US media use this  extraordinarily misleading term superdelegate rather than the neutral and perfectly accurate term unpledged delegate?  Do they do this in total innocence of the analogies with superman and man, and superhuman and human?  Is it simply because the word is sexy and ‘cool sounding’, as some of my critics have claimed? ‘Sexy’ in what sense? Why does it sound so exceptionally cool in 2008 when it hasn’t since 1983?

This word is obviously pejorative and subtlely condemnatory in comparison to unpledged delegates, making it more important this year because it is weighted in precisely the same direction as that reflected in the CMPA media project: pro-Obama, the media’s choice, anti-Clinton, the threat to the will of the people. The people seem evenly divided on the issue of which of these two senators should be the Democratic presidential candidate.

Superdelegates? (2nd edition)

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

The US press is dredging up a word from the early 80s and using it in a new, suggestive sense in an apparent attempt to tilt the US elections in the direction it prefers. Political leaders who attend the Democratic Convention with a single, uncommitted vote are now called superdelegates in the broadcast media. 

The implication of this term, raised first in the early 80s but seldom used since, is that these leaders have more power at a political convention than rank-and-file members of the party. Actually, a superdelegate is simply an elected official with one vote that is uncommitted prior to the convention—unless he or she has endorsed a candidate.

So why do we need this term this year (2008) and with a new, misleading sense?

The press has decided that it prefers Senator Obama for the Democratic Party nomination and, according to CMPA’s 2008 ElectionNewsWatch Project, has been giving him consistently more positive coverage than Senator Clinton. Recently, all the networks began announcing that Senator Obama had, in fact, won the primary race and have been openly appealing to Senator Clinton to resign from the race, making the job of the press easier.

The last hurdle the press must overcome is the Democratic Convention in Denver this summer. How can the press be sure that party leaders do exercise their prerogative to choose Ms. Clinton as the party candidate? After all, neither candidate has enough delegates to win the nomination; the primary is a virtual tie.

Well, one tack would be to attach a new epithet which might intimidate party leaders in case they decide to make such a move. That word is superdelegate, now used in the media in ways suggesting it refers to someone who has more votes than he or she deserves. Look out for an increase in the usage of this aspersive term as the Convention convenes this summer.

Why does the press prefer Mr. Obama so passionately as to flagrantly attempt to undermine Senator Clinton? Former President Clinton visited Lewisburg recently and suggested that it was because his wife is old news and the Press wants someone new to write about. My guess would be that the press is tired of looking for skeletons in Ms. Clinton’s closet and have greater hopes of digging up something that would embarrass Mr. Obama. He is the greater unknown.

Mr. Clinton also thinks that his wife represents a demographic that the press doesn’t understand: people who struggle to pay for their mortgage, send their kids to college, and pay their medical bills. “People at the networks don’t have to worry about these things,” he opined, “They are of no concern to network producers.”

Whatever the reason, we have another lexical toxin with which to tarnish those brave enough to enter the US political process.

Edited, updated May 26, 2008

Misogyny and the US Elections

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

Senator Hillary ClintonScott McDonald dropped a note today protesting our use of misogyny in reference to US voters’ attitude toward Senator Clinton and other women in public office. The offending example in today’s Good Word is: “Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in the 2008 presidential elections may test the misogyny in US society.” Scott thinks:

“Today’s word misogyny is misrepresented in your example, much like the misuse of homophobia to describe any and all disapproval of homosexuality. These are words used loosely when they have a very specific meaning.”

To say, ‘I hate Clinton, Clinton is a woman; therefore, I hate women’ is a faulty syllogism, just as saying is, ‘You dislike this person, they are homosexual; therefore, you are a homophobe.'”

I actually agree with Scott in that the example might lead back to a faulty assumption; however, the statement applies more broadly to all the possible reasons people might avoid voting for Senator Clinton and I still think that misogyny is a major one. I even adulterated the sentence with a cautionary may: “may test the misogyny in US society”. The point of the example was simply to show how the word is normally used and I may have let this sentence’s topicality overwhlem my control of deductive logic.

The logic here does reek of guilt by association in that we are encouraged to assume that if Obama has any African blood in him and we oppose him, it is because of his African ancestry. If Senator Clinton is a woman and we oppose her, it is because of her femininity. In both cases there is no logical, let alone causative, relation between the two factors.  I certainly think above the range of the talking heads on US TV who use this mislogic with such passion night after night.

Guilt by Association

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

I am surprised that this expression is not heard more in the news, aside from the rock group so named. It has become the sole basis of argument for the US news media this week in their attempt to create a scandal out of nothing and besmirch the character of Senator Barack Obama.

The lowest form of attack—as opposed to any form of argument or proof—is to accuse someone of a belief held by someone else they just happen to know. We should have learned this lesson from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s use of guilt by association in his attack on the First Amendment via the infamous House UnAmerican Activities Committee in the 50s.

The purpose of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee was to root out “Communists” from the US society. It succeeded in destroying the lives of thousands of decent Americans in that pursuit and its primary tool was guilt by association.

People lost their jobs and reputations, not because they were members of the Communist Party or ever had been, but because they were seen in the company of a member of that party at one time or other. Often they didn’t even know at the time that the associate in question was a member of the Party.  But if you stand beside a Communist, you must be one, right? That is guilt by association.

How absurd. It is just as absurd to conclude that because Senator Barack Obama attends the church of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, that he must agree with everything the right Reverend utters. So why were Reverend Wright’s truthful if mildly provocative comments even repeated in the news? Why should Senator Obama feel compelled to respond to a scurrilous attack on his character from the US press, based solely on guilt by association?

To stoop to creating scandals using guilt by association lowers the press into the debilitating mire of Dark Ages. We can only hope that it will somehow retain the strength and light to eventually pull itself out of that mire.

Guilt by association is a phrase none of us should forget or misunderstand. The news this week was not the words of Reverend Wright, but the rearing of the ugly head of guilt by association, a news item no one heard about anywhere—save here.

Electile Dysfunction

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

A neologistic sniglet of the 2004 US presidential elections has returned to us.  We wouldn’t suggest adding it to our dictionaries but it is worth remembering:

Electile Dysfunction: The inability to become aroused by any of the choices for president put forth by either party in the 2008 election year.

Thank you Paul Ogden and Chris Stewart.