Exploring the cliche-by-president matrix

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A couple of days ago, in "Fact-checking George F. Will, one more time", I noted that Will complained about the

…  egregious cliches sprinkled around by the tin-eared employees in the White House speechwriting shop. The president told the Olympic committee that: "At this defining moment," a moment "when the fate of each nation is inextricably linked to the fate of all nations" in "this ever-shrinking world," he aspires to "forge new partnerships with the nations and the peoples of the world."

While admitting that "I don't have a program ready to hand for measuring cliche-density, much less cliche egregiosity ", I nevertheless offered the opinion that "in speeches prepared for ceremonial occasions like this one, the cliche density of presidential rhetoric has been fairly constant for decades if not centuries".

I still don't have a metric for cliche-density, but we can learn something by exploring the site http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/ for certain fixed phrases.

For example, there's no question that "defining moment" is a defining phrase for Barack Obama, who has used it ten  times in texts indexed on that site. The only other president who has ever used it (in texts indexed there, anyhow) is, interestingly, George W. Bush, who used it once.

As for that "ever-shrinking world", Obama has used this phrase once before the Olympic pitch, and no other president (or presidential speech-writer) has ever done so.

And no other president has apparently ever aspired in so many words to "forge new partnerships". But George W. Bush ("America and China: Address in Thailand", 8/7/2008) promised to "forge new relationships with countries that share our values". In fact, that phrase came from a sentence notably dense in the high-sounding abstract phrases that George Will seems to dislike so much in Barack Obama's speech:

America has pursued four broad goals in the region: reinvigorate our alliances, forge new relationships with countries that share our values, seize new opportunities for prosperity and growth, and confront shared challenges together.

Interestingly, presidents Bush and Obama are the two only presidents to voice the aspiration to "confront * challenges": Obama three times, and Bush four times. Many other presidents have confronted challenges, but only these two have used those words.

And even more than confronting challenges, George W. Bush was fond of (talking about) confronting problems: the string "confront problems" occurs 36 times in his texts, and — amazingly — not once in the texts of any other American president.

GW Bush was also fond of (talking about) seizing things: "seize new opportunities" (W 2, no others), "seize this|that opportunity" (W 2, Gore 1, no others), "seize opportunities" (W 2, Clinton 2, no others) "seize this moment" (W 3, Kerry 1, no others), "seize the moment" (W 4, no others), "seizing this moment" (W 1, no others), "seize the initiative" (W 1, no others), "seize control" (W 4, Carter 1, no others).

Overall, such phrases often seem to be associated with particular time periods and with particular presidents. Thus James Munroe and Andrew Jackson were each "deeply impressed" three times, and James Polk and Martin van Buren once each. The only other presidents to have been "deeply impressed" were — again — that unlikely pair George W. Bush and Barack Obama, once each.

It would be interesting to run a collocation-detection algorithm over the whole collection of presidential speeches. This might give something approximating a cliche-density metric (though really there should be some normalization relative to usage patterns in the wider world). But the eigenstructure of the president-by-cliche matrix might tell us whether Barack and W are really rhetorical brothers beneath the skin, and reveal other hidden (or at least amusing) affinities.


  1. fs said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 5:39 am

    Hmm. I tried looking around the site for some sort of index of all speeches they index, but I couldn't seem to find one. They have listings of "current speeches", which seem to be those of President Obama, and "historic speeches", which seem to be some particularly famous or historic speeches of previous presidents. However, the search function turns up results not listed in either page. There are some other subpages focusing on other recent events and speeches related thereto. Overall, though, it's hard to see what the distribution of their corpus is over the various presidents we've had. Isn't it possible that GWB's odd tendency to pop up in the results is just because much of their corpus consists of his speeches? I don't think the site is much intended as a source for comparative study.

    [(myl) Keeping in mind that Google counts are always suspect, we get 252 hits for Reagan, 236 for Obama — so there's obviously a recency effect. Bush has 1,100, combining a recency effect with two recent presidents of that name.

    So yes, W gets more chances to register his collocations than earlier presidents do. Some day there will be a more complete collection — but this one is good enough to see some patterns, I think.]

  2. Tom said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 6:43 am

    Is it not possible that Obama and GWB use similar phrases because those are the phrases of today – either because they are appropriate to the particular world situation of today, or just because of linguistic fashion? I'd guess, say, Truman and Eisenhower probably used similar phrases too, and for the same reasons.

    [(myl) Yes, that's the hypothesis that I'd start with. Again, the structure of the cliche-by-president matrix should show this, if it's true.]

  3. Dierk said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 7:17 am

    I always thought clichés are bad – until I realised where they are used most often. A realisation setting me out on a path – a path to think.

    Clearly clichés are abundant otherwise they wouldn't be [clichés that is]. so they fulfil some task. Propaganda, political and commercial, IME is the one area where you find most of them, from empty phrases to odd metaphors. We recognise clichés immediately, we usually do not think about them since we also understand them immediately. Just like 'How are you?' as a greeting is not an actual question to be answered [let alone honestly] but a politeness signifier, a [hollow] token of empathy.

    Advertising of any sort is meant to be understood without thinking, you see/hear it and gone it is. Use stock characters, put in appealing [you know, Master of the Glen type] imagery, nothing new, nothing to figure out. Then connect this with your product and you are done.* With political advertising you need more of this, especially in the case of speeches as you have an audience that you have to synchronise though many of them will not agree with all of what you are saying or with their neighbours in the crowd.

    What you cite from Mr Will's whinging may be clichés, they might also be a little on the pathetic side, and a little overused, but they are useful to posit the speaker as 'one of us', as someone who sees a critical situation and has solutions to handle them [even if not made explicit]. Worse, some of them might actually be true.**

    *BTW, harder then it sounds, and there's some other aspects, too.
    **Leading to the interesting point that any true factual statement will be recounted over and over, becoming a cliché over time.

  4. Doc Rock said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:59 am

    As Rachel Maddow showed last night, Ronald Reagan repeatedly used "shining city on the hill."

  5. peter said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

    Dierk said (October 8, 2009 @ 7:17 am)

    "Advertising of any sort is meant to be understood without thinking, you see/hear it and gone it is. Use stock characters, put in appealing [you know, Master of the Glen type] imagery, nothing new, nothing to figure out. Then connect this with your product and you are done.*

    Lest any children or persons of delicate character are reading this blog, it should be noted that this statement is nonsense. Some, but by no means all, advertising seeks to be understood without thinking. Indeed, it is not even true that all advertising uses imagery. Have a look at any classified advertising section of a newspaper if you think otherwise.

    And if anyone thinks that adverts with imagery have "nothing new, nothing to figure out", then you've not been reading glossy magazines (eg, Absolut Vodka, any cigarette brand until banned), watching TV (eg, the Budweiser lizards), or going to the cinema (eg, adverts for computer games in Britain entirely in Japanese). Over the last 40 years, western consumers have acquired a sophisticated visual intelligence, which has developed and co-evolved with commercial advertising. There is nothing unthinking on either side of this communication (advertisers to/from consumers), and certainly no assumption by either side that the other is not thinking.

  6. neddanison said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 10:31 pm

    Isn't a cliche a hackneyed expression, a phrase that's been watered down by overuse? How do we distinguish cliches — many of which can't be precisely or objectively defined as such — from the lexical items that add up to the genre we call presidential speech? How else is a president supposed to sound presidential if he can't go around pronouncing "defining moments" and "forging bold alliances" and other such windiness?

    Anyway, while we're at it, I'd like to see the cliche density and egregiosity meter turned on academics who can't see anything linked in any way other than "inextricably". Next time I write a paper where something is shown to be linked, I'm going to say "so linked it just can't be unlinked even if you really tried hard."

  7. Dierk said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 2:48 am

    Peter, you are right, there's commercial advertising trying to be original; unfortunately it is a matter of opinion if this works as well as the other 80-90%. Not least because nobody studied it.

    The major point was, propaganda of any sort needs to be quick, easy to comprehend within the very short time people notice it, close to them. Add to this that most advertisers are keen to reach everybody, not just smaller but better defined focus groups, and you get clichés. I am just saying they do have a purpose, they are functional – no moral or aesthetic judgement.

    I've yet to see effective political advertising not relying on easy to grasp clichés. And Mr Will's criticism seems to be more about his ideology's clash with Mr Obama's than about language and its functions.

  8. D.O. said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 3:38 am

    Anybody remembers a "Yes, Prime Minister" episode, where incoming PM read the preelection opposition's speach on TV as his own first post election's?

  9. peter said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 3:56 am

    Dierk said (October 9, 2009 @ 2:48 am)

    "there's commercial advertising trying to be original; unfortunately it is a matter of opinion if this works as well as the other 80-90%. Not least because nobody studied it."

    Again this is not the case. Apart from the academic discipline of media studies which (inter alia) has studied advertising effectiveness these past 50 years, advertising agencies and their clients in western countries spend enormous sums trying to understand the impact and effectiveness of their advertising. In this and your previous comment, you seem to have a view of the advertising industry as being slapdash, unintelligent and haphazard, when the truth is completely the reverse.

  10. Dierk said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 4:46 am

    Peter, I doubt this is the place to discuss what we two seem to debate, it's what Fontane called 'ein weites Feld', a lot to take into account. As a matter of reconciliation, I admit to painting with a broad stroke. My issue was not advertising [political or commercial] per se but clichés and how they are better than their rep.

    Clearly nobody is prescribing a specific way of doing adverts or propaganda. to make that quite clear: I do not and did not say advertising is always clichéd, neither do I say it needs to be. I am also quite aware of the fact that there is more to advertising than billboards, adverts, radio/TV clips – a lot of which do not use emotion and cliché but are informative and factual.

    To feed our ego: advertising is intelligent, catering to the needs of the consumers, scientifically studied, knowledgeable about what people want, need, and how they decide. Hence people love advertising and it works just as Henry Ford allegedly said.

  11. Graeme said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 6:40 am

    G Will vs I Obama was syndicated in Thursday's Australian Financial Review (think WSJ Down Under, with more progressive journos but not editors.)

    Friday they published this letter from me:

    "I of the Beholder

    Washington Post Writers Group columnist George Will condemns President Barack Obama for using the 'I' word.

    Will's argument is prejudice, unsupported by logic or fact.

    Mark Liberman, linguistic researcher blogging on the inestimable Language Log, compared Obama's Olympic speech and early presidential press conferences against those of George Bush jnr and Bill Clinton. Obama's use of first person pronouns was half that of Bush and 50 [oops 33] percent lower than Clinton.

    In any event, someone who says 'I think' a lot is, if anything, more modest than someone who just asserts opinion as fact. Also, there are lots of ways of being modest and yet avoiding the 'I' word. Will, in a smug circumlocution, recently referred to himself not as 'I', but as 'this experienced father of four'."

  12. Aaron Davies said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 8:44 am

    @D.O.: no, but there was a great Onion story (which I can't find now) just before the 2004 elections which presented a generic victory speech suitable for either Bush or Kerry.

  13. Jonathan said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

    "Also, there are lots of ways of being modest and yet avoiding the 'I' word."

    Is "modest" a mistake for "immodest"?


  14. Graeme said,

    October 10, 2009 @ 12:54 am

    Jonathan, yes. My apologies, I had to retype the letter on an iPhone.

  15. marie-lucie said,

    October 10, 2009 @ 9:21 am

    In the course of learning English, my second language, I learned that "modest" has two meanings: "humble, self-effacing" (which is meant here), and "not flaunting one's body", but "immodest" only negates the second one. Or has this changed in the past few decades?

  16. Graeme said,

    October 11, 2009 @ 3:23 am

    Marie-Lucie, the OED gives "lacking modesty or decency; forward, imprudent, boastful; indelicate, improper."

    Churchill's putdown of Atlee: "A modest man with much to be modest about", could become a compliment of sorts if you substitute 'immodest'.

  17. Anders Lotsson said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 7:09 am

    How about Lincoln? Judging from the speeches by him that I've read, he tended to use words that actually mean something.

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