Archive for Language and politics

"Evidence, data and reasoning"

Now that a black man is no longer president, George Will has stopped obsessing about presidential overuse of first-person singular pronouns, and has turned his attention to other pressing matters, such as the role of liberal higher education in promoting the political ascension of Donald Trump ("Trump and academia actually have a lot in common", 1/27/2017):

Much attention has been given to the non-college-educated voters who rallied to President Trump. Insufficient attention is given to the role of the college miseducated. They, too, are complicit in our current condition because they emerged from their expensive “college experiences” neither disposed nor able to conduct civil, informed arguments. They are thus disarmed when confronted by political people who consider evidence, data and reasoning to be mere conveniences and optional.

"Evidence, data, and reasoning". Good to hear that Mr. Will remains committed in principle to the virtues that he routinely subverts in practice.

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"Dick voice": Annoying voices and gender stereotypes

During the 2016 presidential campaign, there was a lot of negative commentary about Hillary Clinton's voice. Some examples from across the political spectrum are compiled and discussed here, and even-the-liberal-The-Atlantic published on "The Science Behind Hating Hillary's Voice".  Since Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump pretty much got a pass for vocal characteristics analogous to Hillary's, it was suggested more than once that the criticism was sexist, most creatively in this reprise of Shout by Dominique Salerno and Laura Hankin.

In fact, considering how many people have criticized aspects of Donald Trump's speaking style, it's striking that there's been so little discussion of his tone of voice as opposed to his rhetorical style and content. But this balance is distinctly different for his senior advisor Stephen Miller — see Kali Holloway, "What makes Trump advisor Stephen Miller so unlikeable?", Salon 2/15/2017. That article leads with a collection of video clips from Miller's recent interviews — here's the audio track:

Holloway's evaluation of those clips is strongly negative, and also distinctly gendered:

If you caught any of those appearances, you may have noticed a few Miller trademark gestures. Empty, reptilian eyes scanning left to right over cue cards. A pouty mouth delivering each insane untruth. And a voice that sounds like every hyper-unlikable, pompous, joyless, self-important authority-on-everything you’ve ever met. Or as Katie McDonough of Fusion puts it, “he has the voice of someone who is a dick.”

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Thought Leadership

Theodore Roosevelt "Ted" Malloch, who is reported to be Donald Trump's pick for ambassador to the EU, has been accused of inflating his resumé in various ways (Henry Mance, "Oxford distances itself from Trump favourite Malloch", Financial Times 2/10/2017; Henry Mance, "Academic touted as Trump's EU envoy embellished autobiography", Financial Times 2/9/2017; Daniel Boffey, "Credibility of Trump's EU ambassador pick called into question by leading MEP", The Guardian 2/9/2017).

If Mr. Malloch is actually appointed, the details (about publications, a knighthood, a lairdship, fellowships, professorships, an Emmy nomination, and so on) may become important, but meanwhile, one minor accusation — the tenth of ten listed in the 2/10/2017 FT article — led me to an amusing bit of lexicographic history.

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Ask Language Log: -ism exceptionalism

Jonah Goldberg, "The Trouble with Nationalism", National Review 2/7/20

But I firmly believe that when we call the sacrifices of American patriots no different from the sacrifices of Spartans — ancient or modern — we are giving short shrift to the glory, majesty, and uniqueness of American patriotism and the American experiment. I’m reminded of Martin Diamond’s point that the concepts of “Americanism,” “Americanization,” and “un-American” have no parallel in any other country or language.

Fred Vultee sent in the link, and asked:

My immediate guess is Eskimo snow myth, but that also seems to be the sort of assertion that's addressed with specific examples. Does anything spring to mind, or do you have any suggestions on a chunk of literature that addresses discourses of nationalism?

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New Year's massacre

Boris Kootzenko spotted this truly bizarre banner at a service area on the highway leading west from Shanghai in Anhui Province:

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Ask Language Log: Turnbull, Trumble, ?

Graeme Orr asks:

This relates to US-Australian relations, thrown into mirth if not disarray by a now infamous phone call.

Afterwards, Mr Spicer mistook our PM's surname twice in a press conference.

Australian social media heard Spicer as calling our PM Turnbull 'Trumble'. But I distinctly hear it as 'Trunbull', a simple transposition error of a name Spicer probably only has seen not heard. 'Turnbull' is Anglo/Saxon, 'Trumble' is Scottish and there have been several famous Australian 'Trumbles', so Australians would be primed to hear the misspeaking that way.

Can your software parse the mispronunciation?

Already local journalists are stirring the PM by calling him 'Trumble' to his face.

Which is more than a tease. E.g. that 60 Minutes interviewer is the doyen of our press gallery and believes the Trump phone insults should be a trigger for Australia to free itself from our role as 'Deputy US Sheriff' in the Pacific.

P.S. We are used to this in a way – Jimmy Carter once stood beside PM Malcolm Fraser and welcomed him as 'My good friend John Fraser'. John was merely Fraser's formal first birth name.

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"On notice," as meaningless as ever

Donald Trump, conducting foreign policy by tweet, announced that "Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile." National Security Advisor Mike Flynn reiterated that point at a news conference, though press secretary Sean Spicer was unable to explain what "on notice" actually means in this context. Could be because in diplomacy, putting a country "on notice" is not actually a thing.

The use of "on notice" did not go unnoticed by Stephen Colbert, who, in his "Late Show" monologue last night, accused Donald Trump of stealing the old "on notice" bit that he used to do on his Comedy Central show, "The Colbert Report." Fans of that show will recall Colbert, in his blustery conservative talk-show persona, would put the names of people and entities on an "On Notice" board for various slights, real or imagined.

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Donald Trump, Frederick Douglass, and the present perfect

The media (for example here, here) have noticed that there is something strange about Donald Trump’s use of the present perfect in a comment about Frederick Douglass at the start of Black History Month:

Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.

Somehow this utterance suggests that Trump believes that Douglass is still alive, raising the question of what aspect of its grammar leads to that inference.

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Apologetic rat

The following ghastly photographs of a rat that was caught stealing from a convenience store in Heyuan, Guangdong province have gone viral on Chinese social media.

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WARNING:  viewer discretion advised.

The photographs following the page break may be upsetting to some readers.

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In a swirl of synonyms and grammar terms, calling a noun a noun

Dan Barry's recent article in The New York Times is headed: "In a Swirl of ‘Untruths’ and ‘Falsehoods,’ Calling a Lie a Lie." And pretty soon, he is of course reaching for the dread allegation of writing in the "passive". Does he know what that charge means? No. Like almost everybody who has been to college in America, he vaguely knows that passive is bad in some way that he can't quite put his finger on, but he doesn't actually know when it is appropriate to use the term "passive" and when it isn't (see this paper of mine for a couple of dozen similar cases of mistaken allegations of using the passive). He says this:

To say that someone has "lied," an active verb, or has told a "lie," a more passive, distancing noun, is to say that the person intended to deceive.

His "active verb" is not transitive, so it doesn't have a passive version; and his "passive, distancing" counterpart is not verbal at all, and hence has nothing to do with passive constructions. What on earth does he think these terms mean? Nouns have nothing at all to do with either the grammatical concept of passive voice or the rhetorical concept of distancing oneself from the content of a claim.

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Only America First

A question asked on Facebook:

Okay, linguists who work on focus sensitive particles – can you tell me what on earth this means? "From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first" I couldn't bear to listen so I don't know where the focal accent was, but no possibility makes sense. 'only AMERICA first'? since there's only one thing first, isn't the 'only' redundant? 'only America FIRST'? as opposed to second? please do enlighten…. Of course this is hardly the most important thing to be worried about today….

I listened, and even transcribed, so here's the quote:


From this day forward,
it's going to be only
America First.
America First.

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American freedoms

It's probably not an accident that yesterday's inaugural address, compared to the previous half-century or so, has the highest frequency of the morpheme america (= America, American, Americans) and the lowest frequency of the morpheme freedom (= freedom, freedoms):

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Slow-talking the inaugural

Before Donald Trump's speech yesterday, I wondered whether he would turn the political world upside down by delivering a high-energy improvised riff in the style of his campaign rallies. But no — his speech was scripted and read verbatim as written, although it did feature several of the signature lines from his rallies, as well as the first use of the word "carnage" in a presidential inaugural. But content aside, the performance seemed to me to feature unusually short phrases with unusually long pauses, resonating with the rather negative tone of the event as a whole. This struck me as very different from Mr. Trump's spontaneous style, and also unusual by the standard of other recent inaugurals.

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