Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Language in Politics' Category

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.

Pejorative Words for Women

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

Stephen Greenfield, a creative photographer in Cleveland, Tennesee yesterday came to the good Doctor with this problem:

“I’m trying to sort out what a male lover is called (not gigolo, boy toy, or pool boy) that corresponds to the feminine mistress, simply a female lover seen by a married man—not a kept woman, merely a woman a married man sees from time to time, sex just being a part of the equation.”

“What is the term when a married woman has an unmarried male lover? Geez, you would think that might have been settled long ago, but my research turns up nothing except debates about what is a mistress and long, dry dissertations written from a woman’s point-of-view of glass-ceilings, power, money, you name it, and they all claim it.”

The male lexical counterpart of mistress is master. Notice how this word has not developed in the same direction as mistress. Why not?

If I haven’t written on this topic before, I’ve discussed it for 30 years in my introductory linguistic courses. The fact of the matter is, English and most other Indo-European languages contains FAR more pejorative terms for women than for men. Notice that even two of the words for “lover” that Stephen cites, boy toy and pool boy, reflect pejoratively on the women who have them more so than on the toys and boys themselves. Gigolo is the exception because it refers to deceitful, unreliable men.

Let’s begin with a few relatively clean pejorative surrogates for woman: bimbo, cow, clothes-horse, crone, dog, fishwife, floozy, frump, hag, harlot, harpy, hussy, milf, moll, nag, prude, shrew, siren, skirt, spinster, tart, temptress, wench, witch, working girl. Prejudice against women is a flagrant characteristic of the English vocabulary.

There is no comparable list of pejorative words referring exclusively to men (i.e. not referring equally to men and women) that rivals this list. Of course, we can easily build a comparable list of pejoratives referring to homosexual men. However, they are accused precisely of being feminine by homosexophobes. This has long been an argument of the existence of a strongly male-dominated society.

Given this fact of English, why would we need a word referring to a male lover other than lover? Again, notice that a male lover is something to be admired unpejoratively while the pale penumbra of shame always hovers over the female lover.

Podunk Potemkin Villages

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Yvonne Owens couldn’t help being struck by both the phonetic and the semantic similarities between our recent Good Word podunk and Potemkin and wondered if the two words were related.

For all its similarity, Potemkin has nothing to do with Podunk. Podunk is a word from an American Indian language while Potemkin comes to us from Russian. The Russian word is a commonization of the name of Grigory Potemkin (or Potyomkin, as it ir pronounced in Russian). Potemkin was a favorite of Catherine, probably her lover, and for the majority of her reign, the most powerful person aside from Catherine in Russia.

Grigori PotemkinAccording to European legend, in order to impress Western European dignitaries visiting Russia, Potemkin very quickly built several settlements in territories taken by Catherine from Turkey in order to convince those dignitaries that the land now belonged to Russia and that Russian would not surrender it under any circumstance. To make the point, Western Europeans had to see Russian putting the land to Russian use, even though the peasants compelled to move into them left soon after the dignitaries departed.

Although unrelated to podunk, Potemkin’s action bears a striking resemblance to the action of Israelis in building settlements in the West Bank territorities siezed during the Six Day War. Both instances are based on the assumption that “possession is 9/10 of the law” plus the additional difficulty of undoing what has already been done. The difference, of course, is that Israel is building real settlements; Potemkin built nothing more than empty shells of buildings grouped to look like settlements in an unsettled territory.

The Mighty and the Righty

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

Maureen Koplow responded today to my comments on the word benight with a two part question, one philosophical, the other linguistic. Here is part one:

“Could you please shed some light on why so many people think that might makes right?”

In other words, why do so many people find it difficult to understand the difference between having the power to do something and having the right to do it?  The fact that we have so many ways of asking the same question indicates that the question is not new but is important.

Now, the fact that these two words rhyme does not mean that they are related. Since they are not related, this is not a linguistic question, so I will put on my raggety moral philosopher’s cap to answer part one of Maureen’s question.

The question keeps popping up to the surface of the sea of life even though we pretty much know the answer. If you are a careful observer, you will observe that the people who think that might makes right are those with might. The decision-makers (or, as our previous president put it, “the deciders”) at Enron, Worldcom, Silverado Savings, Tyco, AIG, Merrill Lynch—to just get the ball rolling—tend to be money addicts unaware of the difference between right and wrong or the fact that right is preferable.

We must include in this group those at the pinnacle of power in governments from the national to the local level, not to mention the individual level, as we see in the murderer of Dr. George Tiller in the House of God on Sunday during services. (“Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”)

This lot tends to be power addicts (guns are power, too), an angry a lot, bereft of the knowledge that when we lose our temper, our IQ drops 30 points on average. They also suffer a bit from the same congenital defect as the money addicts: the inability to distinguish right from wrong (two antonyms that are related).

Fortunately, Maureen also asked two more questions on a topic about which I know something: “I wonder where the ight ending comes from, and the various meanings of might, as in “I might go” or the “Mighty King Kong” and and various meanings of right as in “that’s right” vs “you don’t have the right to do that.” I will address these questions subsequently, an address that will mark my return to subjects of which I am certifiedly knowledgeable.

I will leave you with a question of my own: Why do we have recovery programs for every kind of addict except money and power addicts?

Words that Describe and Designate

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

A “news” story that doesn’t seem to want to go away is the search for a new name for the US anti-terrorism activities. The Bush Administration called them “The Global War on Terrorism”, even though it is focused on only two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. This fact makes the expression poorly descriptive; “Binational War on Terrorism” would more accurately describe what we are actually doing.

The problem is that “Global War on Terrorism” (or G-WOT, as it is called in the Pentagon) has become ingrained in the culture in ways that are difficult to undo. Members of the Obama administration prefer the phrase “Overseas Contingency Operations”. This phrase is broader and could include operations other than those against terrorism but for that reason it is vague and descriptive of something few people have a clear picture of.

The problem here is between two functions of words and phrases. Some words and phrases are descriptive, i.e. their meanings fit perfectly their references. Writer means “someone who writes” and is perfectly descriptive in that anyone who writes is a writer. Write means “write” and -er means “someone who”.

Other words, however, are simply designative, i.e. they designate (name) an object without describing it. London, for example, simply designates a city in England without describing it. Proper nouns are all designative: John, Mary, Algernon only designate certain people without describing them, as do words like genius, dolt, cut-up.

“The Global War on Terrorism” is both descriptive and designative. It is a poor description as mentioned above, so calls for a better term. However, as a designation of our two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it works fine and has worked fine for eight years. Having ensconced itself over that period as the designation of what we are doing in those two countries, it will be very difficult, if at all possible, to replace it.

Why Swine Flu Now?

Monday, May 4th, 2009

Throughout most of my life people around me have been saying that we would have a black president when pigs fly. Well, we have one now and guess what? Swine flu. (Thank you Paul Ogden for passing it along.)

Latest Clichés: Skin and Haircuts

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

The latest Beltway clichés are beginning to irritate me and I can no longer resist the inclination to complain about them. “Put some skin in (the game)” brings up memories of falling and scraping knees, elbows, heads, and the like. 

This cliché replaces “ante up”, which replaced “cough up”, whose demises please no one more than me. “Put some skin in” is milder than “give a pound of flesh”, donated by Shakespeare but still it is pretty raw. “Ante up” comes from poker; it means literally to put more money in the game and hence is more fitting for the financial crisis than “putting in more skin” (unless, of course, you’ve been skinned by Bernie Madoff).

OK, the image is bad, so what is better? Let’s try “give/get a haircut”, as to give GM employees or AIG managers a haircut. Well, that isn’t a graphic image of an injury but then it doesn’t really imply a contribution to the cost of resurrecting our economic institutions. Hair cuts are something we all get on a regular basis and implies willingly giving up something we consider superfluous. It implies no kind of sacrifice at all which is the very point of these metaphors.

This is what comes of ignoring our poets and listening to the faces on radio and TV that talk faster than they think. Clichés, of course, are simply metaphors that catch on and are repeated ad nauseum by those who cannot come up with their own. I’m sure at least one poet in our midst has dreamed up a better metaphor than the ones that are morphing into clichés even as I click away now.

Whitehouse Slang

Friday, March 20th, 2009

No my Australian friends, this note is not about slang in the Australian outback. It is about some of the slang words introduced to and promoted by the US media by the Bush administration, slang which we still hear and probably will continue hearing for a few more years.

I’m not talking about the Bushisms like, “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.” I’m talking about what, with remarkable clarity, falls under the rubric of “slang”. Why do I think so?

WhitehouseAccording to my essay, “What is Slang,” “Slang is a code in which one vaguely related or unrelated word or phrase is substituted for a more common one.” It is a set of words that identifies the speaker with a particular social or occupational group, especially a group of youths, but members of a puerile administration fit the pattern just as well.

I suspect whoever dreamed up these terms thought that they were clever marketing terms that would becloud if not completely hide their real meanings. But they really don’t work as long-term additions to the English vocabulary.

The most persistent one as of today is rendition, a slang term for the outsourcing of torture. Of course, the US has never done this before Vice President Cheney decided it the proper course to take. But it is a cover word, as much a euphemism as slang.

Rendition, of course, is the playing of a musical piece in a specific style. It is a noun based on render, though it is seldom as ever used this way. You can render aid, render fat (which may have happened in our off-shore torture chambers), render an opinion, but I’m don’t recall seeing rendition used in any of these senses. Certainly, it doesn’t mean “outsource torture”.

So, rendition, which I only figured out last week it is so opaque, joins the misuse of surge for “reinforcements” and embed for “exclude all but friendly news reporters” in the attempts at slang of the past administration. As I have mentioned before, the most remarkable aspect of this bizarre linguistic episode of the past eight years is the US networks willing complicity in promoting this misuse of English.


Guaranteed Bonuses

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Donnella dropped a note yesterday, writing: “I’m hearing “guaranteed bonus” in the news a lot, referring to the AIG situation. It seems to me an oxymoron. I understand there are legal concerns but the word bonus must have a different meaning in a contract. I’d like to see your take on this.”

It would seem that money-addicts have invaded and taken control of most large US corporations. The compensation packages they have been giving themselves became more and more obscene as the years lumbered by.

Typical large corporation heads started with outlandish salaries plus stock warranties or options but no amount could satisfy the money addicts, so “(guaranteed) bonuses” were added outside salaries, probably to becloud the issue of total compensation. The term “guaranteed bonus” is not an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp” or “pretty ugly”, but simply a contradiction of terms.

We all know what a bonus is: it is additional compensation given for outstanding performance, finishing a project ahead of schedule or overfulfilling a contract. So we can’t know ahead of time that a bonus will be due. However, people whose sole measure of worth and accomplishment is income, need money beyond what stock holders might be willing to endure if their compensation were reported as a lump-sum salary. So, “bonuses” were built into contracts, that is, guaranteed.

The current euphemism for them is retention bonuses, under the assumption that without them, an executive would move on to another company. A retention bonus actually sounds more like a bribe. Now, the absurdity of bribing the total failures at AIG to stay and continue undoing the company seems to escape those who tender this argument.

The argument goes on: only those who led AIG into its mess have the skills and knowledge to lead it out of its mess. It strikes me that these people are far more likely to make mistakes of the same magnitude leading the company back toward solvency that they made leading it flatly into insolvency. Maybe logic has changed since I was an undergraduate.

In all probability, if bonuses returned to what the word means, stock options were curtailed, and salaries were reasonable, large corporations would fare much better. Why? Because fewer money addicts and more people with a long-term commitment to the company would apply for executive positions. People who are as smart and experienced as the current executives of AIG are not hard to find—many are sitting right there in the company now.

Building a net worth of $100 million would still be possible, but only as a result of continuing excellence in management over a significant period. A $50 million per year compensation package and $150 severance payment regardless of performance discourages any commitment to a company beyond the first year.

The newly defined bonuses in the obscenely high compensation packages for corporate executives are therefore bad capitalism. They play to only the basest motivation toward excellence, the one that attracts money addicts. Moreover, without complex compensation packages, we would need far fewer absurd euphemisms like “retention bonus” to becloud the discussion of corporate leadership.


Monday, November 17th, 2008

The closing days of the recent presidential election in the US saw the odd emergence of words referring to old ideologies of centuries past: socialism, communism, and capitalism. Now that the Soviet Union has collapsed and abandoned its bizarre ideology of coerced socialism and China has mollified their version of it without collapsing, the US may be the last country that continues to harm to itself in the avoidance of 18th and 19th century ideologies.

An ideology is a set of doctrines or beliefs about the correct way in which a society should run and people should behave. Ideologies may be rigid or flexible but we have seen that those that have remained rigid tend to fail. This happened with both the rigid socialism and capitalism of the 20th century.

The US has looked at the world as a battleground of ideologies since World War II: democracy against dictatorship, capitalism against socialism. European nations have long since abandoned the fear of these ideologies, more and more ignoring them. Other nations have created societies intended to generate the greatest benefit for all, blending the workable bits and pieces of any ideology.  The result has been the fall into irrelevance of the ideologies themselves.

One of the hopes President-elect Obama brings with him is that the US will cease to harm itself out of fear for words referring to anachronistic ideologies.  The sound of these words thumping to the ground during the closing days of the campaign is a promising prelude to clear, intelligent policy based on good ideas rather than fear of now empty words referring to ideologies intended for social conditions of the 19th-century.