Starting all over again

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I did an inauguration piece, too, for Newsday, on a quick turnaround; I'll post the link to the full piece here when it goes up. My general take, though, was that Obama had recycled his historical models with his foot on the rhetorical damper soft pedals:

Commentators had been looking back to Lincoln, King, FDR, and JFK for models. But while the speech might bring to mind all of those, it was more subdued and restrained. In place of Roosevelt's 1933 remonstrance of the "callous and selfish wrongdoing. . . in banking and business," Obama offered a nonspecific rebuke of "greed and irresponsibility on the part of some," immediately balanced by a reminder of "our collective failure to make hard choices." And FDR's famous warning against "fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror" became a caution about "a sapping of confidence across our land."

In fact the most vivid evocation of the Depression era was in the summons to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America," an allusion to Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields's “Start All Over Again,” the anthem to pluck and resilience that Fred and Ginger sang in the 1936 Swingtime.

There was more, on Obama's venture in polyptoton, a term that doesn't crop up a whole lot even here on LanguageLog. But one good turn is enough for now.


  1. rootlesscosmo said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 10:23 pm

    I liked the Swingtime allusion too–Kern and Fields were an immortal team–but damper pedals don't have a subduing, restraining effect. The dampers on a piano normally lift when a key is depressed (allowing the strings to sound), then drop back when the key is released, silencing the string; the damper pedal lifts all the dampers at once, so any keys depressed will continue to sound, even after the key is released, until the string vibration decays. The result is actually perceived as making the instrument sound louder, since the player can strike keys while others continue to resonate; if these are consonant pitches, you get an amplified, almost organ-like effect, if they're dissonant, you get a kind of tonal smear, which may of course be a the composer's or player's intention. To quiet the sound you use the soft, or una corda, pedal, which (on a grand) shifts the action sideways so only one of the three wires (for most pitches) is struck by the hammer.

    Geoff Nunberg said: Thanks — see above.

  2. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 10:35 pm

    Repeating myself from the comment thread on Mark's post: It's interesting to juxtapose the Kern/Fields "dust yourself off" allusion with his earlier nod to Jay-Z's "Dirt Off Your Shoulder." Obama's cultural literacy certainly spans generations.

  3. Paul said,

    January 21, 2009 @ 5:55 am

    To my ears, the picking oneself up and dusting oneself off and starting all over again just sounded saccharine and twee, detracting from the feel of sobriety and responsibility in the speech. It's the sort of allusion I might have expected of the previous president, and we'd all have laughed at his simple(-minded?) folksiness.

    Geoff Nunberg said: Gee, maybe it's a generational thing, but I don't think I'd use twee here, and I don't here anything saccharine in either the song or Fred and Ginger — pert, maybe. Now I could see your point if the allusion had been to "High Hopes"… "Anyone knows an ant… can't… MOOOOOVE a rubber tree plant."

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