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Archive for the 'Language in Politics' Category

Flipping out over ‘Flip-Flop’

Monday, October 1st, 2007

We heard a lot about flip-flopping during the last presidential campaign. I had hoped it had run its course but I’ve heard it a few times recently in the current pre-pre-preliminary campaign for the presidency of the United States so I feel I have to vent a little on the subject before I do ‘flip out’.

First, it is a child’s word, a rhyme compound like roly-poly, piggly-wiggly, willy-nilly, in a rhyme class with clip-clop and hip-hop. It isn’t a serious word; you don’t read it in scholarly journals.

Flip-flop is a pejorative term for “change your mind” or “reconsider”, something intelligent people often do when new or fresh information about an issue comes to their attention. The worse thing a leader, political or otherwise, can do is to remain adamant on a point despite the fact that new evidence indicates that his or her position is wrong. At least it is bad if the objective is taking the right postion on issues.

If someone in known to change their position for political reasons, then that fact should be drawn out and presented in detail. Changing one’s mind in general, however, is not a bad thing.

Flippety-flop, flippety-flopSo, using terms like flip-flop in a debate can be an admission that the target of the epithet is flexible in their thinking, that their thinking is based on best evidence and, as that evidence changes, so does the thinking of the flip-flopper. Flip-flop is a term of ridicule, to often used by debaters who have no argument or rebuttal. There is nothing wrong in flip-flopping if the evidence flip-flops—or if the flip-flopper’s thinking matures with experience.

So, let’s all keep in mind that flip-flopping is a pejorative term for mental flexibility, something those who used this word so extensively in the last presidential election do, in fact, seem to lack. Let’s hope that this word will be used in the future exclusively to refer to thongs of the feet such as those pictured above.

Old and New Idiots

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

Lisa Cain sent a very articulate and eloquent reply to our Good Word idiot which I thought others would appreciate. Here it is in toto:

Dear Dr. Goodword,

One more bit of information/ advice about the word “idiot”. The self-advocacy community, which includes individuals with developmental and cognitive challenges, takes EXTREME umbrage at the use of this word.Their displeasure stems from the same feelings of discrimination and second class citizenship that motivated the African American community and many others to stand up and vocalize their discontent.

In the same way that language usage changes down through time – which is what makes it so interesting, don’t you think? – the use of this word (and other disparaging terms to describe individuals with cognitive difficulties) is quickly slipping into the category of “politically incorrect”, and hopefully into the historical records of our language.

I haven’t seen you do so before, but it would be nice if you would publish a caveat to this goodword that explains the above to a larger audience – your readers.

Lisa Cain


Dear Lisa,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment and your concern. Let me assure you: I share it. However, I decided that omitting the definition you refer to altogether would resolve it. Still, I did add the caveat that the word is considered offensive and should be avoided.

I no longer consider this a word to refer to people with developmental problems and so prefer simply to omit that meaning. It doesn’t exist for me. To continue using it and then warning others not to, struck me as inconsistent. Besides, telling someone not to do something usually encourages them to at least try it.

I can recall correcting my children when they referred to what we then called the mentally retarded, as retards. I was not the only one concerned, so the school system chose a euphemism, those requiring special education. Then I had to chide my children for referring to each other as speds. As I have mentioned before, taboo words are replaced by euphemisms which become taboo words which are replaced by taboo words which are replaced . . . ad infinitum. (Click here for more on the subject.)

However, “idiot” is also used harmlessly as a colloquial word that use to refer to ourselves and others when we do stupid things: “What an idiot, I have been!” is not uncommon. I see nothing wrong with this usage so long as we continue to do stupid things from time to time.

The Warm and Fuzzy N-Word

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

An old and good friend, Sue Gold, Communications Manager at the Westtown School in Westtown, Pennsylvania, brought to my attention an article in the online Philadelphia Inquirer about a simulated burial of the word nigger staged by the students of the NAACP Philadelphia Youth Council last Saturday.

Americans like to take pills for their woes. It would be wonderful if there were a pill like the word nigger for American racism and all we had to do was to quit saying that word and racism would go away. I have already explained why that is not the case.

The N-word has, in fact, become a term of endearment among many younger African Americans, especially males. The new question is this: if the N-word is so horrible with such a terrible history, how can it become a term of endearment under any circumstances whatever?

It is an interesting sociological fact is that among men, profanity is often used in place of terms of endearment. A real man (who wouldn’t think of eating quiche), would never use such womanly terms of endearment as “you old dear”, “you sweetheart you”, and so forth; these terms are left to the swishy British upper class. If your neck is red and you have at least one deer rifle hanging across the rear window of your pickup truck, you greet your buddies with, “Well, how are you, you old SOB”, “you lucky b—–d”, or worse.

Now that these words have become acceptable among the younger generation and the new profanity is in place, we can predict that the new profanity will shortly provide the new terms of endearment for males who want to prove themselves men. Apparently, that changeover is already occurring.


Joke of the Day: Freedom of the Press

Monday, April 16th, 2007

The most important lesson of the circus over Don Imus’s racial slur is the clarity it brings to who controls the US media. According to the reports I heard, the managers at NBC News and CBS Radio were trying to decide how to handle the situation until advertisers began to cancel. That settled the matter. What Imus said was of secondary importance at best—indeed, he was hired to make outrageous statements; the crucial issue was that the people who pay are upset.

I taught Russian and Soviet history for 20 years back in the bad old days when most Soviet news came from Pravda “Truth” and Izvestia “News”. The going joke in the USSR at the time was that there was no Truth in the “News” and no News in the “Truth”. I made the point that freedom of the press was encumbered in both countries by advertisers: the major difference between censorship in the USSR and in the US was that in the USSR there was only one advertiser, the Communist Party.

I think the point was very near the truth. Over the recent decades the focus of the US media has continually narrowed. News that reflects critically on minorities and women has been notably muted and news that reflects badly on large corporations has been eliminated completely. One of the greatest scandals of the past century, the Enron catastrophe, was discovered by government authorities and only reported when they announced it. Ditto Tyco, Worldcom, and similar disgraces.

The only object of criticism left to the US media is the government. When the goverment discovered a decade or so ago that corporations were defrauding it by charging outlandish prices for ash trays and hammers, the press immediatley attacked the government for wasteful spending. No news organization pursued the issue into the fraudulent corporations. Those corporations continue to determine what we can and cannot hear or see in the US.

The good news is the Internet and the Web. The reason mainstream media are moving to greater and greater extremes is that they are losing not only credibility but viewers and listeners to growing competition especially from the medium you are reading right now. However unreliable the Web may be for news, at least it is not controlled by corporations who add unseen taxes to the products we buy and use that money to leverage their view of the world on the mainstream media.

Big Brother is and always has been Corporate America and the Internet shows us what genuine free speech is, warts and all.

Imus in the Garden of Forbidden Words

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

I could never understand why people listened to Don Imus, a rather  mean-spirited schlock radio talk show host given to haranguing the rich and famous in unenlightening ways. I would be happy that he is gone except I know he will be replaced by someone worse, another enemy of education who prefers ad hominem nastiness to reasoned discussion.

However, the uproar in the news over the loss of such an insignificant mind might seem totally bewildering. Every African and European American TV personality has been hammering for a week now the same blatantly obvious point: Imus let a racial slur slip out on a live mike. Notice the charge is not that Imus is a racist but that he uttered two prohibited words that offended the women’s basketball team of Rutgers University.

So the substantive issue is that Don Imus’s comment offended the Rutgers team. Don Imus? Offend someone? His infamous insults of President and Mrs. Clinton received less press coverage than the racist phrase (which the media love to repeat). He has insulted everyone on Earth whose name has made the news. I’ve seen two interviews with the Rutgers team in which all members seemed bewildered themselves. The issue is not effrontery or racism.

The issue in this brouhaha is the words themselves. Words, as I have also said several times are far more powerful than their size suggests. Every language maintains a list of forbidden lexical fruit we are not allowed to touch. 50 years ago this list contained what we called “profanity”, nonmedical terms referring to sex and the organs involved in it. These words have become commonplace now so we need a new list. Keep in mind, the point is not the meaning of the words or what they symbolize: the point is the list itself. Unlikely as it may seem, every language must have a list of sacred words that no one is supposed to utter.

The important point is that a section of language is designated to be taboo and protected by fear. It has to be set aside, a challenge (not an impossibility) for children to learn, and protected by fear of social ostracism. Why? It just has to be; probably a part of human character—perhaps related to some need to whisper.

If Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the 60s were all ahead of their time in digging up the old garden of forbidden words, maybe Don Imus is just ahead of his time. Maybe it is time to destroy the current list as we draw up an even newer one. Or maybe Imus is just behind the times and should move on.

Not Much Doing in Arkansas

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

ArkansasThe Arkansas state legislature had a light day back in February and managed to clear the Arkansas Apostrophe Act, a nonbinding resolution that endorses the spelling of the possessive of Arkansas as Arkansas’s rather than Arkansas’. The latter spelling, usually restricted to plural possessives like ‘the legislators’ goofing off’ or ‘the reporters’ laughter’, was legally enacted as the official spelling by a previous apostrophe act on a slow day back in 1881.

At issue was the ‘silent’ S in the pronunciation of Arkansas, pronounced [ahr-kên-saw]. This means that the correct pronunciation of the possessive of this state’s name is [ahr-kên-sawz] with only one S, pronounced [z]. (This is why Kansas’s legislature is not forced to struggle with the same issue.) The original law, then, would make as much sense as the current one if there were a consistent correlation between the way we speak and the way we spell.

The general rule is that the possessive of words that end on S is the same as that of any other word, -‘s. That is the way these words are pronounced—more or less. There are exceptions. The possessive of ‘classical names’ omits the final -s, as in Jesus’, Socrates’, Plautus’. Of course, the line between ‘classical’ and ‘nonclassical’ names is a bit mushy.

So, which Arkansas legislature is correct, that of 1881 or that of 2007? Well, the silent S is silent in both the possessive and nonpossessive forms and so should be ignored. The important thing to remember, though, is that how words are spelled in English, thank heavens, is not Arkansas’s decision.

More on Dominions and Domination

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

Duomo FlorenceMy apologies for the delay in continuing this thread. Maureen Koplow responded to my comments on the etymology of words beginning with dom and her response set the wheels in my head spinning again. However, other duties have kept me away from the blog for the past several days. Here is Maureen’s response, followed by mine.

Maureen: My reason for asking has to do with my animal advocacy – I’ve discussed the idea of the biblical phrase where Adam is supposedly told to have “dominion” over the animal kingdom. For many people, they use this as an argument in favor of exploiting animals. I’ve tried to explain that the word dominion is related to the more positive concepts of stewardship, of being godlike and taking responsibility for animals. I’ve used the concept that many people pray to a deity and ask for mercy, for tenderness, for consideration.

Such people also usually believe that man is created in the image of that deity. My argument is that if people are indeed created to be in “God’s” image, and if we pray to a merciful “God,” are we not then supposed to act “Godlike” toward those over whom we have “dominion”?

The connectedness of the words beginning with dom makes it clear to me that the original intention of the commandment “to have dominion” was to have mercy and compassion, to care for and nurture. For those who believe in a religious argument which favors use and exploitation of animals, the biblical commandment would seem to contradict that claim.

Dr. Goodword: I am led to the same conclusion by a different strain of logic. I am a linguist and linguists are impressed by the fact that only the human species can speak. No chimp, gorilla, whale, or dolphin has ever done anything resembling human speech, despite repeated efforts (“Can Chimpanzees Talk“).

The only explanation to this is that human intelligence is qualitatively different from that of other species. That is don’t simply have more brains than other species; the difference is not quantitative. We have a totally different kind of intelligence, one that allows us to create, learn, and unconsciously pass on language from generation to generation.

That is a large part of the definition of God. God is an entirely different kind of intelligence. Because other species cannot attain the kind of intelligence we have, yet we are a species, it behooves humans to take care of the Earth. No other species can destroy this planet, so no other species can be expected to preserve it. Other species just eat, sleep, and reproduce; that is all they can do. We are the intellectual powerhouses—though looking at our corporate, religious, and political you sometimes wonder. We need a qualitatively different sense of responsibility to go along with our intelligence.

Surging to War, Reporters Embedded

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

The Bush administration’s marketing department has been particulary weak at warspeak. It first came up with the term embed to express the military’s new control over the press (the first victim of war is truth). At normal conversational speed it is difficult to distinguish “reporter embedded with the 1st Division” from “reporter in bed with the 1st Division.” Intentional or not, the US media quickly absorbed the term and are now trying to understand  how Bush could have so misled us into believing Iraq possessed WMDs.

Now, troop buildup has been replaced by troop surge, no doubt because the political marketers think surge is more powerful and positive than buildup (or increase or expansion). The association is with a power surge that fries your electronic equipment if you use no surge protector. Tsunamis bring a surge of water that is even more destructive. Of course, any of us can experience a surge of energy that helps us get the job done. Maybe that is what the master marketeers have in mind.

What the marketeers have failed to do is come up with a terminology that demonizes the enemy. In World War II the Germans were the Jerries (we still use that term in the word jerrican) and the Japanese were the Japs. They were depicted as devils in all the war propaganda.

The clarity of that war did not carry over to the Vietnam war since the enemy and the “friendlies” looked alike (the enemy didn’t always wear uniforms). Some of our guys over there called them slopes but that slur didn’t take at home. 

Islamofascist is much too long and has no devilish image associated with it. We see Osama bin Laden but he is a Saudi and looks like too many other Middle Easterners. This makes it difficult to understand what we and our beds are surging toward and why.

Running a war without support let alone participation of the population at large has historically been a losing proposition in this country. But if we lose in Iraq, as we did in Vietnam, we may be able to chalk the loss up to marketing—or even reduce it to a matter of vocabulary.

Yellow and Blue Dog Democ_ats

Wednesday, November 8th, 2006

When President Bush was asked last night how he would deal with the new Democratic Congress, his response was that there would be enough ‘blue dog’ Democrats in it that he would be able to work with it. Blue Dog Democrats?

Blue and Yellow Dog DemocratsWhen I was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina in 1959 of the 100 counties in the state, only 2-3 HAD a functioning Republican Party organization. Everyone voted Democrat and the real elections were the primaries. No one ever received a majority in a primary and usually there were two candidates close enough to the winner that either he (white male Protestant) or the runner-up would have to “persuade” the third-place winner to throw his votes behind one of them. Several months after the elections, the third-place winner usually received a Cadillac and other appreciative and appreciated gifts from his “supporters”.

The point is, all candidates were Democrats. The saying down there was, “I’d vote fer a yeller dawg if’n he’s a Democrat!” This led to the appellation of those who would vote for or with Democrats, no matter what the issue, as “Yellow Dog” Democrats.

The Southern Democrats were always social conservatives, i.e. they were strong supporters of segregation. So when the Democratic Party pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they were left out in the cold. Many leaders, like South Carolina Democrat Strom Thurman, converted to the Republican Party to keep his seat in the Senate and he was joined by racists like North Carolina’s Jessie Helms and succeeded in turning the blue South red.

Some Democratic leaders did survive by voting very conservatively. Those who supported Reagan’s tax cuts were called ‘Boll Weevils’ for the damge they did to the Democrat Party. That name was much too pejorative so they looked for another. Since ‘Yellow Dog Democrat’ was much more positive (dogs are assumed to be faithful), they changed their name themselves to ‘Blue Dog Democrats’ and formed an unofficial organization.

Democrats at their best are more remindful of a herd of cats than they are of dogs. But the Blue Dog Democrats are fairly predictable: their positions are much more conservative, closer to those of the Republican Party than traditional liberal Democratic positions. It will be interesting to see how many of them will be in the new Congress and how they will blend in with the other ilks and breeds and hues.

The US National Language

Tuesday, August 8th, 2006

National languages are no big deal. Why the issue keeps arising in this country I find bewildering.

I’m not sure what a national language even is. The term is often used in referring to an official language, the language or languages in which all official documents must be written in order for them to be official.

The US has always had a default official language since all laws and other official documents are written only in English. Other languages are required in special circumstances, as in court proceedings, company procedures, and the like but the language everything must be written in to have legal impact is English.

This being the case, the English Only and English First movements are irrelevant. They will become relevant only if Spanish Sometimes or Spanish Second movements appear. (I can’t even imagine a Spanish Only or Spanish First movement.)

English is the medium that melts things in the melting pot. The idea of the US as a melting pot was a point of pride when I was growing up and for good reasons. Multicultural nations are fraught with problems monocultural societies do not face. Compare the history of ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia, China, Soviet Union–and Russia today–with our own history since the Indian wars settled the issue of domination (however you might feel about them). Even mild-mannered Canada with its two languages went through a violent period in the 60s and 70s.

If you examine the societies around the world today you will see that monocultural countries tend to work more smoothly and be more productive. France, England, and German are monocultural countries who have experiences only minor ethnic conflicts and many of those between immigrants and nationals. Everyone works around one dominant language and those who do not like that language for whatever reason moves on.

Those who immigrated to the US, learned the language, and joined the fray with the rest of us have always succeeded to a greater extent than those who did not merge. Yet, we have always had ethnic neighborhoods, ethnic restaurants, ethnic festivals. It has traditionally been possible to maintain your ethnic identity while speaking English.

So what would declaring English the official language change? Then why does the issue keep coming up?