This Week In Linguistic Gymnastics

I’m not the first person to notice how important a role linguistics play in politics – George Orwell’s classic 1984 provided keen observations into the role that minimization of language plays in closing political discourse. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell stated, “All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.”

As a writer, first and foremost, the linguistic abuse that regularly metastasizes in politics is of particular note. Those who don’t share the passion for writing don’t tend to notice it, and so don’t get when they’re being duped. Hopefully this regular column, which I’ll publish each week, will shed light on the sort of verbal athletics that are regularly played.

“The Democrat Party” – I’m not a fan of either political party but I can’t help but notice this particular note of disrespect coming from the Republicans. It’s often said that you should call a group what they call themselves, and the phrase “Democrat Party” is a term no Democrat uses and which is obviously used to downgrade. In a tense interview with George Stephanopoulos, Rand Paul used the phrase with particular anger, demonstrating his ascendance into Republican partisanship.

Republican Names – It dawned on me recently – Republican politicians often seem to have either single or few syllable names: Paul Ryan, George Bush, Ron Paul, Rand Paul. While searching for the meaning of this phenomenon, I can only espouse it to a further illustration of the culture war – on one side, the Democrats, a leader with a name like Barack Hussein Obama II (whose Kenyan and Arabic names combined with American citizenship symbolize multiculturalism) and on the other, the Republicans, a leader with a name like Sarah Louise Palin, the simple charm of which matches the woman’s personality and upbringing.

“Obamacare” derogatory? – While this story is a little bit old, it’s worth bringing up simply because it will be relevant in the future. Daily Show host Jon Stewart pulled the card of saying Obamacare was “derogatory:”

Stewart immediately jumps on O’Hara’s slip, calling him out on using the “derogatory” phrase and firing back by referring to O’Hara’s book as a “tea-bagger book.” O’Hara stammers for a few seconds and tries to defend his word choice, but concedes to calling it the health-reform bill instead. (It’s a law, by the way.)

With the letter “g” used twice in the middle of “tea-bagger,” the phrase is a little too much like two very politically incorrect terms for sexual and ethnic minorities. Stewart is a comedian, of course, and such a term isn’t offensive enough to make him a bad guy. However, while not a bad guy, he is a hypocrite. How on earth is “Obamacare” derogatory while “tea-bagger” isn’t? Does Stewart prefer one sort of derogatory over another? If you go down that logical road, surely some servicemen must have found it upsetting to hear their mission in Iraq called “Mess-O-Potamia” regularly by Stewart.

Twitter – I am normally not a technophobe. I loved the Economist article critiquing Barack Obama’s rant against technology. Given that, you can’t be absolutely fundamentalist about anything, so it must be said that Twitter is not a means to a literate society. With each tweet limited to 140 letters, comments are limited in their meaning in addition to their length. A quick look at my Twitter main page found these gems of literary genius:

i wish i could just kamehameha ppl when i felt like it.

Nine-year-old boy invents better buns for bratwursts, wins admiration of world [Cool]

Shut Up You Fucking Baby! #FaveDavidCrossAlbumAndActualThoughtIAmHavingAboutMyBabyRightNow

[Jun-17]-Equities: Analysis of the Current Situation and Prospects in the Chinese CWSF Market: SHANGHAI, June 17 /… http://bit.ly/aKTMET

We already have a highly visual based reductionist talking point culture, which has enabled mental midgets like Sarah Palin to positions of influence that would have been laughable years ago. Take a look at old issues of Life Magazine and you’ll find the quality of prose more representative of today specialized digests like Lapham’s Quarterly in its quality than People magazine or Newsweek. In many ways, our society is ahead, but in terms of the average American’s language capacity, I’m afraid to say we’re falling behind.

  • John222

    I look forward to future posts and hope to see some exposing the changing definitions of words, especially as used by legislators in their bills. You never really know what a law is until you have read the definitions page.

  • Michael O. Powell

    John – Feel free to send any relevant stories to mopowell07@gmail.com.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    I did a quick scan of the US Senate, and saw no correlation between one-syllable names and political party. I’d say that if you look at the names, most R & D names, when possible, are the “shortened” version of a name (like Rand for Randall, or Ron for Ronald), with the exception of a few Richards — after all, most politicians are already called Dick.

    Re: Twitter, I don’t give it the weight you do. While I do agree that the literary abilities of Americans are declining, I don’t blame Twitter for the change — I blame public schooling and a general decline in reading. Twitter I don’t view as much as a true place to “write”, more as a place to disseminate news and have short snarky conversations.

    On a side note, I actually find Twitter very useful for myself, as I tend towards unnecessary verbosity. When I want to say something on Twitter, I find myself editing a comment to its essence, and that practice has caused me to improve the concision of my writing.

  • Michael O. Powell

    Twitter is more symbolic of our society at large than a precursor of illiteracy. I use Twitter all the time and find it useful, but I do have to concede that we are going into an era of the increasing visuals and less attention span. A look at today’s magazines will show you the like of Maxim or People, replete with short articles and lots of pictures.

  • Akston

    “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
    – Shakespeare

    “Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.”
    – Thoreau

    “If Thoreau had meant it, he only would have written ‘simplify’ once.”
    – Akston