Like the law, politics is overwhelmingly about language. Misrepresentation and euphemisms are rampant, along with many other devices to advance political agendas through the dishonest use of language. This category will try to keep up.
Written language contains many information signals beside letters and numbers. Here are a few.
A period is to let the writer know he has finished his thought and he should stop there if he will only take the hint. Art Linkletter, A Child’s Garden of Misinformation (1965)
To a generation of children who are trained to be sensitive to an ever-increasing body of words deemed offensive because of their perceived meanings, who are “triggered” by these words and need “safe spaces,” it is, for the P.c., just a small jump from reading new meanings into words…to reading new meanings into marks of punctuation.
Why do people vote for a Presidential candidate who has plagiarized all his life and has as much originality and authenticity as the guy in the picture?
Here comes the orator, with his flood of words and his drop of reason.
Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1735
[Disclaimers: I am not a conservative, a Republican, or a supporter of Donald Trump. This is about the relationship of a speaker to his speech.]
The ubiquitous double screen has triumphed in Presidential politics. We now have a candidate who is totally reliant on script, whose public speaking skills do not enable him to compose and deliver an organized, coherent 30-second answer to a substantive or policy question.
A grammar book from the 1870’s shows language changing and sheds light on a contemporary language controversy.
Many languages. . .have no gendered pronouns. English needs a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and as Winston Churchill said about democracy as a form of government, “they” is the worst option, except for all the others.
-Anne Fadiman, Harper’s, August 2020
Language changes, perhaps in response to social pressure or a communicative need – or for no functional reason at all, as with hone in on replacing home in on, mainly, I guess, because the two sound alike, hone connotes focus and sharpness, and people forget what the home in home in on means.
Gender-neutral “they”: Let it start here full post
(1435 words, 1 image, estimated 5:44 mins reading time)
Politically correctness attacks the teaching of English. Be afraid.
Be very afraid..
“The truth is what most people believe. And they believe that which is repeated most often.”
“[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts… if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
Who dares to be the red person in a sea of blue think-alikes?
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
— Lewis Carroll
“Offending and being offended are now the twin addictions of our society.”
— Martin Amis
Gender politics pervades language, and it’s getting even harder to know what’s “correct.”
Tens of thousands of years have elapsed since we shed our tails, but we are still communicating with a medium developed to meet the needs of arboreal man. . . We may smile at the linguistic illusions of primitive man, but may we forget that the verbal machinery on which we so readily rely, and which our metaphysicians still profess to probe the Nature of Existence, was set up by him, and may be responsible for other illusions hardly less gross and not more easily eradicable?
Pronouns and gender politics full post
(1188 words, 1 image, estimated 4:45 mins reading time)
Politicians commit various language abuses considered “BS.” Biden is a prime example.
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
Henry Adams, 1907
The politician is an acrobat. He keeps his balance by saying the opposite of what he does.
Maurice Barres (1896-1923)
Political BS, a noxious blend of mendacity, manipulation, and meaninglessnss, is all around us, as it has been ever since we invented politics. So let’s try to understand what it is, the better to identify and resist it (this is knowledge that all middle-school graduates should have, but it is in the interests of the ruling classes that they not have it).
Overwhelmed by political BS full post
(1094 words, 1 image, estimated 4:23 mins reading time)
Politically incorrect speech is neither red nor blue. It is red, while and blue. It is American. Repression of speech leads to repression of thought.
This is a message that the p.c. crowd — in the media, in the universities – needs to hear again and again, because they don’t get it, especially when a Presidential candidate (Warren) announces “her” pronouns on the debate stage, and a teacher is fired for not using the student’s preferred pronouns. It is not enough, the argument goes, to have pronouns of two genders, when there are so many other genders. We need more pronouns!
Stop the pronoun craziness full post
(1290 words, 1 image, estimated 5:10 mins reading time)
Code-switching can be used in the service of pandering, as when Presidential candidates lapse into Spanish to win favor in the cheapest manner.
Spare me the sight / of this thankless breed, these politicians / who cringe for favors from a screaming mob / and do not care what harm they do their friends / providing they can please a crowd!
Euripides, Hecuba (c. 425 BCE)
This post introduces my Blahblahblah Award, bestowed upon the politician using the most devious and manipulative language since…well, since the previous award. The grinding Presidential race will continue for many months, so there should be plenty of material.
Code-switching and pandering – a new low full post
(671 words, 1 image, estimated 2:41 mins reading time)
Linguistics is concerned with who says what to whom, and why. Why do groups of people adopt their own manner of speaking? There are many answers.
Is sloppiness in speech caused by ignorance or apathy? I don’t know and I don’t care.
I admire John McWhorter so much for the breadth of his accomplishments, his accessibility to the media, his eloquent lectures.
I recently saw a video clip in which he pegged Trump’s speech as characteristic of primitive humans just getting their “language chops” together.
On baby talk and language change full post
(1069 words, 1 image, estimated 4:17 mins reading time)
From mind to thought (and from there to the speech and auditory organs)
The truth is what most people believe. And they believe that which is repeated most often.
Paul Josef Goebbels
Here is the text of a letter I sent to the Manchester NH Union-Leader (published 6/21/19):
March 19, 2019
Let me add my voice to the chorus of people outraged by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison of immigrant confinement to concentration camps. This is worse than obscene and ignorant. It is an utterly irresponsible use of language. As a linguist, I am appalled by the deceptive reducing of two vastly different entities to a single point of comparison — confinement.
“…style is intrinsic and private, like…voice or gesture, partly a matter of inheritance, partly of cultivation. It is more than a pattern of expression. It is the pattern of the soul.”
Think of language as haberdashery: you have a closet full of clothes for every occasion. Your clothing choice expresses yourself in a particular context, for a particular audience. In the same way, barely aware of it (or not aware at all), you change your speech to what you think (though there are no conscious thinking processes) will be effective for a particular situation and audience.
Stopping plagiarism is as hard as defining it. As long as certain ideas, themes, personages, etc., remain in the public domain, there will be accusations – but not necessarily dishonesty. Biden’s plagiarism is at a whole different level.
Don’t forget why God made your eyes — plagiarize!
Tom Lehrer, “Lobachevsky”
I’m involved in a fair number of plagiarism cases. In non-fiction allegations, I typically represent a student who has omitted quotation marks, possibly because he/she was lifting what appeared to be basic background information. There are very few ways of saying some things with the appropriate degree of precision (especially in legal and scientific writing).
Biden’s plagiarism alone disqualifies him full post
(577 words, 1 image, estimated 2:18 mins reading time)
Political speech – simpler, but no less devious
Definitions of “politician”:
An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared.
(One who) divides mankind into two classes: tools and enemies. That means he knows only one class: enemies.
[Someone] who identifies the sound of his own voice with the infallible voice of the public.
Joseph K. Howard
A set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people and who…are, taken as a mass, at least one step removed from honest men.
Philip Roth produced a tremendous volume of work, on a machine like this. In “The Anatomy Lesson,” he writes of a man tortured by neck pain – possibly from all the typewriting.
“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach – that it makes no sense.”
“You put too much stock in human intelligence, it doesn’t annihilate human nature.”
― American Pastoral
A prophet of political correctness
One of my favorite authors, Philip Roth, died recently, leaving a magnificent body of work. Unlike other personal faves, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, who composed mostly in the key of J (for “Jewish”; Malamud’s The Natural is an exception), Roth’s versatility was truly impressive.
Charles Dickens is famous for giving his characters whimsical names that often reflect their personalities. “Scrooge” is probably the best-known, unmistakably conveying a grasping miserliness in almost tangible terms.
If Dickens had written about a vulgar, aggressive billionaire intent on seeking power, crushing his enemies, and emblazoning his name around the world, he could hardly have chosen a better name than “Trump.”
But we’re not talking about a literary character. Trump is a real person who makes sure his name is repeated 24/7 in every possible mass-media outlet.
This is as good a summary of political rhetoric as I’ve seen:
“Political speeches are rarely occasions for truth-telling. But the good ones combine a description of shared reality with the expression of a vision, or with words of celebration. The mediocre ones consist of platitudes—well-intentioned but lacking the force of inspiration or recognition. And then there is the genre of the thoroughly insincere pronouncement that is all empty ritual. This is not normally observed in countries with functioning democratic institutions, because hollow words are the very opposite of accountability. These kinds of speeches are usually given in dictatorships: their intended audience is not the public but the tyrant. This is what we observed in Washington on Wednesday, and it’s the scariest part of Trump’s big tax triumph.” (Masha Gessen, The New Yorker.)
The answer to the second question is easier than the answer to the first. Miller is from Santa Monica http://www.latimes.com/politics/washington/la-na-essential-washington-updates-trump-speechwriter-stephen-miller-pens-1495224315-htmlstory.html and, by whatever circuitous paths speechwriters’ careers take (and there are some weird ones), he is writing the President’s speeches. At least, that’s the only source for Trump’s formal rhetoric that I could find. Usually by this time, we know who’s writing the President’s speeches and where they come from.
At least, I do – I look for these things.