Phenomenal to the women

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Rebecca Kaplan, "Donald Trump: 'I will be phenomenal to the women'", CBS Face the Nation 8/9/2015:

Presidential candidate Donald Trump sought to redirect incoming fire at rival Republican Jeb Bush, saying that Bush has a "huge" problem with women and he is by far the better candidate with that demographic. […]

"I'm exactly the opposite. I will be phenomenal to the women."

Jay Livingston ("The Donald and the The Women", Montclair SocioBlog 8/10/2015) noted Clyde Haberman's tweet

and commented:

What Haberman is suggesting, I think, is that when you add “the” to a demographic group and speak of “the women” or “the Blacks,” you are separating them from the rest of society.  Without the definite article, they are included. To say, “In our society we have Blacks, Jews, women. . . . .” implies that they are all part of our group. But, “We have the Blacks, the Jews, the women . . . .” turns them into separate, distinct groups that are not part of a unified whole.

I think that Jay's intuition is correct. But he and Haberman seem to miss the fact that Trump's "phenomenal to the women" phrase, though clearly meant as a reference to women as a separate demographic group, was embedded in a context where exactly that reference was specified by the question he was asked:

Q: Let me ask you about women voters — why should they vote for you?
Trump: Because I'm very much into the whole thing of helping people and helping women.
Women's health uh issues are such a big thing to me and so important
and you know I have many women that work for me
I was one of the first persons uh people in the construction industry in New York
to put
women in charge of projects, I mean I have it even today, and I have
many women at high positions. I
you know I've gotten a lot of credit for that, I mean
I have so many women working for me and so many women in high positions working for me
and I've gotten great credit for it.
Q: Is there a specific women's issue you're thinking of?
Trump: Well no I just heard Jeb Bush last week blow
fifty three percent of his vote.
This is worse than what Romney did when he d-
when he blew forty seven percent of the vote
with his ridiculous statement.
I mean I watched uh
Jeb Bush last week
talking about
uh you know women's health
they don't exist. I couldn't believe what he said.
Q: So you think-
Trump: And I'm exactly the opposite. I will be
phenomenal to the women, I mean I'll
I w- I want to help women.
What Jeb Bush said last week I thought was totally out of order.
Then he came back a day later
and he said "oh I misspoke".
Well, that's an awfully bad thing to misspeak about.
I just don't think you misspeak that way. So
I thought what he did was terrible, I heard that statement and I thought it was terrible.
Q: So you think he has a bigger problem with women voters than you do?
Trump: I think he's got a huge problem, look —
I am going to be very much up on the whole issue of
women's health, I mean it's very important.
It's- to me it's vital.
And when I heard him say that, I thought it was-
I thought it was terrible, I couldn't believe he- he even said it.
he corrected himself a day later, but
I don't think that's acceptable, I think he-
I think this for Jeb
is what happened to Romney with the forty seven percent
which did have a huge impact on Romney's loss.

I wonder whether Haberman ("great for 'the women'") and Livingston ("phenomenal for the women") misremembered what Trump actually said ("phenomenal to the women"), or whether they heard him express a similar thought in slightly different words in a different interview…

[By the way, for those whose memories don't extend back 25 or 30 years, the definite article in "The Donald" was (as I recall) originally the contribution of his then wife Ivana. The lack of articles in her native Czech apparently led her to form a not-entirely-correct theory about where to put them in English — or perhaps she was influenced by the usage in German ("der Hans") or some other language …]



  1. John Roth said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 10:25 am

    What stood out to me was the preposition usage. I'd think with rather than to. Or maybe it's just my age. Or Haberman's substitution of with.

  2. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 10:41 am

    If Clyde Haberman has consulted the google books n-gram viewer, he would have learned that (in that corpus) the string "good for the Jews" is significantly more common than "good for Jews," and not primarily because of anti-Semitic propaganda. (Alas, the corpus tells me there are no results found for "phenomenal for the Jews," although no doubt The Donald thinks he would be.) Now, maybe if you dig deeper into the hits, there's some sort of pattern or nuance (perhaps it's the sort of thing that's unproblematic for group members to say but more hazardous for outsiders?). Or maybe it's an unexamined intuition akin to "politicians who use first-person pronouns a lot are narcissists."

    Interestingly enough, another check of the n-gram viewer shows that "good for blacks" is significantly more common that "good for the blacks" So on Haberman's own two examples we seem not to have any consistent pattern as to the implications of arthrousness v. anarthrousness.

    I'm not saying there's no semantic implication at all — it's plausible to think ceteris paribus that "the X's" focuses more on the group-as-such and "X's" implies more "a bunch of individuals who share this particular feature," so a speaker might use or the other depending on which characterization seemed more salient in context. But it seems too simple to say that the former emphasis is inevitably pejorative or problematic in the mouth of a politician (even if Trump is thought to be such).

  3. Mara K said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 11:07 am

    I want to know what issues he thinks women face in this day and age. As a woman myself, I'm sure I'll find it a great lesson in how connected he is to reality.

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

    Another bit of complexity from playing around with the google books n-gram viewer: the string "popular with women" is much more common than the string "popular with the women," yet the string "popular with ladies" is much less common than the string "popular with the ladies." (Recently, "popular with the girls" has been more common than "popular with girls," but not by as substantial a margin, and the anarthrous version was more common as late as 1996.) It's not hard to come with various theories as to why that might be so, but it underscores that when definite articles are and aren't used seems to be highly context-dependent and perhaps sometimes lexeme-specific.

  5. Eric P Smith said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 12:13 pm

    I see a difference depending on whether the word following “the” is a noun or an adjective. There are many syntactic and semantic differences between “blacks” and “the blacks” and I can see why “the blacks” comes across to some as insulting and exclusive. By contrast, with adjectives, “the” is necessary: “This legislation is good for disabled” is not grammatical. “The disabled” has been standard English ever since the King James Bible reported that Jesus healed the sick, the lame, the halt and the blind, and Jesus excluded no-one. But “the disabled” has become tarred with the same stick as “the blacks” and so nowadays anyone who values his reputation has to say “disabled people” or some other workaround.

  6. Faith said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 2:39 pm

    Surely part of the problem with "the women" is that you've now made them into a homogeneous group, rather than recognizing us as a broad category whose members have some things in common and many internal differences. FWIW, I have the same problem with "the Jews" although it is often used by Jews ourselves: I am never sure who we mean when we speak of "the Jews" and if it includes Jews like me. Which may be why I hear "But is it good for the Jews?" used ironically more than straight these days.

  7. Guy said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 2:57 pm

    I think this is in the nature of the definite article, when a group is already available as a discourse referent, we can "name" it with any suitable feature – "the women" = "that relevant group I can identify using the description "women". Without a definite article, the noun is not understood to refer to any referent that could be described by the noun even if not already conceptualized as a subject of the discourse or a member of a discourse-relevant group. This is why we can use the construction with the definite article more loosely. For example, if there is a competition with two teams and one team is mostly women and the other is mostly men, then "the women" could be understood to refer to the team that is mostly women, but "women" could only refer to those who are women (even including those who are not already members of the discourse). Compare: "the women are better at this game than the men", "women are better at this game than men". There are also differences in terms of whether the predicate is interpreted distributively or collectively. This distinction naturally leads to describing the whole class of women as "the women" as being a way of collecting them into a discrete group, in a way in which "women" does not.

  8. Guy said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 2:59 pm

    Whoops, should be "without a definite article, the noun IS understood …"

  9. D.O. said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 3:11 pm

    …helping women…
    …to put women in charge…
    …phenomenal to the women…
    …want to help women…

    So 1 out of 4. Mr. Trump says enough offensive and ridiculous things to stick to him without analyzing his articles. He is not Neil Armstrong and he is not stepping onto the Moon.

  10. Keith said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 3:11 pm

    I also was more puzzled by the word "to" in his phrase.

    After that, I really want to know what it was that Jeb said… His Trumpiness beats about the bush too much, there.

    [(myl) The offending sound bite was "I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues". The context was a discussion of defunding Planned Parenthood — you can listen to the whole segment here.]

    And, moreover, what is the reference to Romney's statement that blew 47% of his support?

    [(myl) I'm surprised to find a literate anglophone who hasn't heard about this ad nauseam — see e.g. here for some discussion.]

  11. Nathan said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 3:21 pm

    Be phenomenal to each other. And party on, dudes!

    [(myl) Totally.]

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 4:41 pm

    Note that a politician can pretty easily avoid any pejorative undertow associated with the phrase "the blacks" by instead using e.g. "the black community" which has exactly the same conceptual issue of treating the group as an undifferentiated mass rather than acknowledging the varying perspectives and priorities of individual blacks, but for whatever reason(s) sounds warm/fuzzy/positive. That may work with other ethnic/racial groups, but I'm not immediately seeing a parallel workaround for women.

  13. Jeff W said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 6:49 pm

    Which may be why I hear "But is it good for the Jews?" used ironically more than straight these days.

    I’ve almost never heard that phrase used in a way other than ironically (although I suppose it can be) and that goes back at least half a century, if not longer. It even makes it into the Jewish English Lexicon, which seems to have a lot of obscure words and phrases, noted as “often used ironically.” Saying “the Jews” rather than just “Jews” is definitely part of the irony.

  14. Brett said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 9:22 pm

    I instantly noticed the bit about "the Jews" as well. I don't have much to say about the matter, except that "the Jews" sounded completely unproblematic, unlike "the blacks," "the women," "the gays," etc. At first, I thought it might just be me; and maybe I feel I can afford to be less concerned about appropriate terminology because I'm one of "the Jews" myself (whereas I'm not a member of any other notable minority or disadvantaged group in America). However, I can't imagine myself getting annoyed about anybody else saying "the Jews" either.

  15. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 11, 2015 @ 10:52 pm

    It's a fair point that "good for the Jews" may be to some extent a jocular/ironic fixed phrase, thus potentially distorting the data. Correcting for that by flipping polarity and changing to comparative , "worse for the Jews" (afaik not a jocular/ironic fixed phrase?) is still more common than "worse for Jews," whereas "worse for blacks" is a lot more common than "worse for the blacks." So something else is going on, which may well be lexeme-specific for contingent historical reasons and not explicable by any single overarching principle.

  16. Jeff W said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 3:01 am

    @J W Brewer

    It's a fair point that "good for the Jews" may be to some extent a jocular/ironic fixed phrase, thus potentially distorting the data.

    Maybe I should have been clearer: The entire joke is ironic but the use of the phrase “the Jews” by those making the joke who themselves were (or are) Jewish is more so—it’s kind of a comment on how others are viewing them—as a separate, distinct group—and how they are therefore forced to view themselves. So, yeah, I definitely think it’s lexeme-specific for contingent historical reasons. Whether it distorts the data, it’s at least consistent with Jay Livingston’s take.


    However, I can't imagine myself getting annoyed about anybody else saying "the Jews" either.

    I dunno. Here’s President Nixon from one of the White House tapes:

    "Now, Life is totally dominated by the Jews. Newsweek is totally, is owned by Jews, and dominated by them, their editorials. The New York Times, the Washington Post, are totally Jewish."

    So Nixon runs the gamut in three sentences: “the Jews,” “Jews,” and “Jewish.” Was he making some subtle distinctions in doing that? I doubt it. But the use of “the Jews” in the first sentence, to me, sounds worse—it’s not just that they’re a separate, distinct group but that they—all and any of their members—are acting in that capacity as a group. But, again, part of that interpretation might be historically contingent based on anti-Semitic tropes of worldwide Jewish conspiracies, etc.

    [Obligatory “I’m one of ‘the Jews’ also” statement here.]

  17. Michael Watts said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 4:11 am

    Eh, I'd say Nixon was making a distinction in his use of "Jews" rather than "the Jews". I don't think "Newsweek is owned by the Jews" would be viewed as correct — the owners of Newsweek are, in principle, certain individual people.

  18. rosie said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 4:20 am

    J W Brewer: a politician can pretty easily avoid any pejorative undertow associated with the phrase "the blacks" by instead using e.g. "the black community" which has exactly the same conceptual issue of treating the group as an undifferentiated mass

    I disagree. "The black community" is also definite, like "the blacks". But, in addition, it implies that the blacks in question form a community which is separate from any communities which non-blacks are in.

  19. Keith said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 5:13 am

    [(myl) I'm surprised to find a literate anglophone who has heard about this ad nauseam — see e.g. here for some discussion.]

    There's probably a negation missing from that response… But that can be explained by my living in France, working a fifty hour week with another twelve hours of come on to of that, and the fact most of the news here is dominated by migrants in the Mediterranean and channel tunnel.

  20. Bean said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 6:08 am

    @JWBrewer: With your other examples – "the ladies" is (in my mind) only ever used by a man who is using it very condescendingly, or in a completely ironic situation where men are pretending to be the sorts of men who would use the phrase "the ladies". Even when we ladies use "ladies" amongst ourselves (not usually with a "the"), it's tongue-in-cheek. I think "ladies" is a word that just can't be used unironically anymore.

    I would agree then with all those who have said this (i.e., the addition of a "the" resulting in a different, often offensive tone) is lexeme-specific, and impossible to generalize.

  21. Brett said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 6:43 am

    @Jeff W: Michael Watts is right about why the different uses have or do not have "the," I think. Moreover, I don't find the inclusion of the article affects my feeling of how offensive Trick Dick's comments were.

  22. Jay Livingston said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 7:34 am

    The footnote about “Ist gut fuer yiddin?” that I added to my post was about how to translate that phrase. The footnote began, “In earlier generations. . . .” The irony when it’s used today (at least in the US) is that the speaker is implying, “We don’t really think this way any more.” Adding the definite article, “Is it good for the Jews” reinforces and clarifies that idea, as if to say, “We don’t really think of ourselves as a separate group with separate interests any more.”

    I haven’t heard the phrase, ironic or not, in a long time – and I live in New York City.

  23. Faith said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 11:00 am

    When the Madoff scandal hit, I heard several people worry that it would be "bad for the Jews." That formulation seems alive and well, at least in times of heightened anxiety. Whereas "good for the Jews" seems to have moved over to irony.

  24. Eric P Smith said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 11:02 am

    One doesn't need to be working a 50-hour week in France not to have heard about Romney's statement about 47%. I am a literate anglophone living in the UK, and I have little interest in internal US politics.

  25. vulcan with a mullet said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 11:34 am

    It's interesting that adding "people" seems to negate the derogatory feeling. "The Jewish People" vs. "The Jews" .. seems to make it more "official"?

  26. Jeff W said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 1:18 pm

    @Michael Watts

    …I'd say Nixon was making a distinction in his use of "Jews" rather than "the Jews".

    I would, too. I was, instead, referring to his use of “the Jews” rather than “Jews” (which he does when he talks about Life).

    I think that if Nixon had said Newsweek was “owned by the Jews” he’d be saying something very different. That’s not about who the actual owners are but about who really exerts influence.

    Was he saying that Life was dominated by “the Jews” (which is similar to saying Newsweek is owned by “the Jews”) or by “Jews”? The way he referred to the other magazines would suggest the latter but he said the former.


    Yeah, the Nixon quote is just so offensive overall, it might swamp any of the finer linguistic distinctions.

  27. Brett said,

    August 12, 2015 @ 2:09 pm

    @vulcan with a mullet: I don't discern any difference in how "the Jews" and "the Jewish people" sound to me. However, while thinking about your comment, I did realize why "the Jews" is fundamentally different from "the blacks." It treats Judaism as a nationality or an ethnicity. Talking about "the English," "the French," or "the Igbo" sounds pretty unremarkable to me (although I could be wrong about the last one).* However, there is then obviously a potential for tension between the positive connotations of "the Jews" as a coherent ethnicity and the suggestion that they are therefore separate and "rootless" (as Stalin might have put it).

    * Using "the" with a toponym, especially the toponym for the people of a current nation-state, seems relatively unproblematic. Of course, "Jew" itself is, at some level—although not the oldest level—a toponym. I am a Jew, although on the Y chromosome side, I do not descend from the tribe of Judah, but rather from Levites who lived in the kingdom of Judah.

  28. Yuval said,

    August 19, 2015 @ 1:11 am

    The women, or binders thereof.

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