Extraordinary

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In the comments on my post “Another Lie from George Will” (5/7/2012), GeorgeW asked

I think I hear Obama use ‘extraordinary’ and ‘extraordinarily’ a lot (an ‘extraordinary’ amount). Is there a way to check this in your data?

I responded

In 127 speech transcripts, in a total of 110,100 words, Obama uses extraordinary 17 times and extraordinarily once. That’s a combined rate of 1000000*18/110100 = 163 per million words. In the 425-million-word COCA corpus, extraordinary occurs 13,360 times and extraordinarily 2,701 times, for a combined rate of 1000000*(13360+2701)/425000000 = 38 per million words.

So relative to the language at large, he (or his speech-writers) do use extraordinary a lot.

How this compares to political oratory from other sources is a different question.

Eugene followed up:

[W]ouldn’t a president talk about extraordinary things from time to time?

So I thought I’d look into this a bit more, over lunch.

I downloaded from the web site of the UCSB American Presidency Project everything in the  “Oral: Address – Saturday Radio” category. This yielded 1345 transcripts of presidential Saturday radio messages, as follows:

Addresses Total Words
Reagan 334 283,215
Bush 1 18 11,296
Clinton 409 374,140
Bush 2 415 254,379
Obama 169 123893

And what are the extraordinary numbers for these five presidents?

Count Rate (per million words)
Reagan 9 32
Bush 1 2 177
Clinton 29 76
Bush 2 21 83
Obama 21 170

So except for Reagan, the others do use extraordinary at about twice the background rate; but Obama’s rate is about four times the background. (The rates for Bush 1 are hard to interpret, because his total word count in this particular category is so small.)

Some other aspects of the frequency counts are slightly intresting.

George W. Bush used enemy and enemies a lot; Ronald Reagan was fond of weakness; Bill Clinton was big on smoking:

enemy/-ies per milion weakness per million smoking per million
Reagan 27 95 17 60 0 0
Bush 1 1 89 0 0 0 0
Clinton 16 43 0 0 50 134
Bush 2 217 853 0 0 1 4
Obama 1 8 0 0 0 0

Update — As long as we’re comparing these collections of presidential radio addresses, let’s take a look at the rates of first-person singular pronoun usage:

Words FPSPs Percent FPSPs
Reagan 283,215 3,241 1.14%
Bush1 11,296 206 1.82%
Clinton 374,140 3,805 1.02%
Bush2 254,379 2,684 1.06%
Obama 123,893 1,123 0.91%

What do these numbers mean?

Nothing at all, except in the context of statements like this:

[audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/WillObama1.mp3]

George Will: If you struck from Barack Obama’s vocabulary the first-person singular pronoun, he would fall silent, which would be a mercy to us and a service to him, actually.

I recognize that Mr. Will is speaking hyperbolically. But the clear meaning of his hyperbole is that Barack Obama uses first-person singular pronouns excessively often; and in that context, this otherwise-meaningless comparison of rates also acquires a meaning, namely that George Will is careless with the truth.

For links to an excessively large number of posts making similar points, see here.



9 Comments

  1. Jon Weinberg said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

    Running the numbers on “unique”, on the same dataset:
    Reagan — 39 ppm
    Bush I — 267 ppm
    Clinton — 37 ppm
    Bush 2 — 24 ppm
    Obama — 73 ppm.
    This lends the beginnings of support to the view that Obama and his writers like words in the {extraordinary, unique . . . } family.

    [(myl) Must not be *exactly* the same dataset — I get

    Reagan: 32 wpm
    Bush1: 266 wpm
    Clinton: 29 wpm
    Bush 2: 16 wpm
    Obama: 57 wpm

    Or maybe different tokenization? Roughly the same conclusion for that word — but Reagan wins by a nose for special:

    Reagan: 519 wpm
    Bush1: 620 wpm
    Clinton: 331 wpm
    Bush2: 267 wpm
    Obama: 517 wpm

    ]

  2. Jon Weinberg said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

    Different tokenization, I think — I included “uniquely” (but not “communique”). Also, I went low tech: I used the search function on the site, counted, and did the arithmetic on my phone — I must have misread it to get 267 rather than 266, and it’s possible other errors crept in.

  3. Agustin said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

    It feels extraordinary, extraordinary
    Baby if you wanna be out of the ordinary,
    Come on and dance with me!

    – Joel Plaskett

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLkkSZNzhZI

  4. GeorgeW said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

    He, or his speech writers, must have read the earlier post and comments. I heard ‘incredibly’ recently in a context I would have expected ‘extraordinary.’ I also noticed they have avoided misnegation (proving that they are avid LL readers :-)

    I wonder if superlatives are characteristic of presidential speech. They often recognize citizen achievements and give awards in which superlatives would be appropriate.

  5. bloix said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

    “Extraordinary” has two meanings = the literal meaning of “out of the ordinary,” “very unusual,” and the extended meaning of “excellent, superb.” Does Obama appear to use it more one way than the other?

  6. Jon Lennox said,

    May 10, 2012 @ 9:29 pm

    When you’re extraordinary, you’ve got to do extraordinary things.

  7. Frank Y. Gladney said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 12:12 am

    @bloix

    ‘out of the ordinary’ (presumably in the plus direction) and ‘excellent’ is routine polysemy. To really get two meanings, bracket the constituents differently:
    [[extra ordin] ary] (both of the above senses) versus [extra [ordin ary]] ‘very ordinary’ (from “Frank and Ernest” a few years ago).

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 8:45 am

    That the current president seems to use special/unique/extraordinary as a set more than others in interesting (all of these can be used semi-pejoratively, e.g., “an extraordinary claim” to convey “a non-credible claim,” but I doubt that’s what’s going on here). I supposed it’s hard to tell what a baseline for that pattern is from COCA because you’d need a bunch of author/speaker-specific searches to see if (possibility a) those who use one of those words more than background rate typically use the others less – so they’re using the set-of-rough-synonyms at an average rate but have individualized preferences within that set, or if (possibility b) some people just like to express that sort of emotional evaluation more than others and freely use the whole available range of near-synonyms to do so.

    For some reason this reminds me of the jarring-to-me effect of Kit Smart’s Christmas hymn which has the lines “Where is this stupendous stranger, Swains of Solyma, advise? Lead me to my Master’s manger, Show me where my Saviour lies.” I assume that in the 18th century “stupendous” didn’t have the circus ringmaster / carnival barker overtones it has subsequently acquired, but could be used much as a present-day presidential speechwriter would use “extraordinary.”

  9. Bloix said,

    May 11, 2012 @ 10:00 am

    Frank Y Gladney –
    but not every synonym of extraordinary carries that double meaning. For example, in the language of our day, “an extraordinary performance” clearly means an excellent performance; but “an unusual performance” implies a poor performance, even though extraordinary and unusual are etymologically as close to precise equals in meaning as two words can be.

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