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Dan Amira, "Fundamentally: Newt Gingrich’s Favorite Word", New York Magazine 12/2/2011:

By now, we've all become familiar with Newt Gingrich's habit of using a few choice adverbs to make the things he says sound just a bit more intelligent to his listeners. Profoundly. Deeply. Frankly. But none of them are as vital to the Gingrich lexicon as fundamentally (along with its cousin, the adjective fundamental). While this appears to be Gingrich's favorite word in the English language, you could also argue that he uses the word so often, and so reflexively, that it's become virtually meaningless to him. In a single 2008 address to the American Enterprise Institute, he used the words fundamentally or fundamental a total of eighteen times. […]

To give you a more complete understanding of how compulsively Gingrich abuses his favorite words, I searched Nexis transcripts and news accounts with the goal of plucking out every single phrase in which he uttered them. I started in the present day, and made it all the way to the beginning of 2007 before I had to stop, for my own health and sanity, which, according to my editors, was beginning to suffer in noticeable ways. The list below contains only unique usages — for example, if he said the phrase "fundamental change" five different times, we only included it once — and, obviously, we only included remarks that were public and recorded in some way. Scroll onward, if you dare, to behold all loosely alphabetized 418 entries.

That post has gotten a certain amount of play already. But although Amira has done some research, and lists an impressive number of examples, I'm not sure that the accusation is a fair one. "Fundamental" and "fundamentally" are pretty, well, fundamental pieces of political rhetoric. For example, a search of for "fundamentally" claims to return 15,100 hits. The first ten:

It’s time to fundamentally change the way that we do business in Washington.
Fundamentally, the economy is facing weak aggregate demand.
And everywhere, people have expressed frustration with a system that seems fundamentally broken.
APEC fundamentally focused on trade and economic liberalization …
German descendants have fundamentally and positively shaped the course of American history.
And the speech that I gave at the joint session described a vision that is fundamentally different from the one that’s offered by the other side, …
Third, we were tasked with developing a new strategy to fundamentally change how the federal government purchases and uses IT
… represent an important step toward more fundamentally transforming our tax code, and serve as a strong foundation for economic growth and job creation. …
The current system operates under two different control lists with fundamentally different approaches to defining controlled products, …
Fundamentally, parents and caregivers are responsible for their children's health and development

The 15,100 estimate is many times too high, in the usual fashion of web-search hit-count estimates (this one labelled as "results by Bing") — but paging through the specific hits yields 355 real examples, which in turn is probably an underestimate. A similar search for "fundamental" absurdly claims 22,400 hits, and returns 946 actual pages.

But this is not a fair basis of comparison, because the site is an enormous one, with all sorts of stuff on it (most of it not even nominally written by President Obama). A more reasonable yardstick would look at some of the current Republican candidates' web sites, calibrating counts of fundamental(ly) pages against the counts of those containing some other common political words. I've added word counts (rather than page counts) from a collection of 99 of President Obama's weekly radio addresses — the collection mechanism is obviously very different in that case, but it should provide at least a rough qualitative comparison.

fundamental(ly) Washington budget(s) jobs
Gingrich 75 169 161 268
Romney 34 190 115 280
Perry 25 159 122 283
Obama 9 80 54 207

The campaign web sites include some newspaper and magazine articles about the candidates, and lots of stuff written by candidates speechwriters and staffers, so the results should still be taken with a grain of salt. But this comparison suggests that Mr. Gingrich's rate of fundamental(ly)-usage really is a bit higher than that of his peers — perhaps by as much as a factor of 2 or 3. However, he's by no means the only politician who uses this morpheme — and at least in terms of raw counts, it's hyperbole to call it his "favorite word".

What about the other verbal "habits" in Mr. Amira's accusation — profoundly, deeply, frankly?

profoundly deeply frankly
Gingrich 9 21 10
Romney 2 21 3
Perry 0 27 7

These campaign web-site page counts suggest that Mr. Gingrich may use profoundly and frankly somewhat more than these two rivals — though none of the rates are all that high — but he's innocent of any special fondness for deeply.


  1. John Laviolette said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 8:19 pm

    I'm kind of shocked that "deeply" and "frankly" are regarded as mere ploys to sound more intelligent.

  2. Bobbie said,

    December 2, 2011 @ 10:00 pm

    Yes, but how many times does he use the word "I" in his discourse? As many as Obama?

  3. SimonMH said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 12:10 am

    Gingrich was sunken, and the limp leaves
    Waited for Cain,
    Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth.
    So that's what the thunder meant:
    Newt talking out of his fundament

  4. Jeffrey Shallit said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 5:41 am

    I guess that makes him a fundamental-ist.

  5. Tom Saylor said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 5:58 am

    In the second paragraph Amira shifts from 'uses often' to 'abuses'. I was expecting him to provide analyses of specific instances that would substantiate the charge of abuse, but it's not clear from Amira's list that Gingrich ever uses the word in a semantically inappropriate or "virtually meaningless" way.

    [(myl) There's certainly no evidence that Mr. Gingrich's uses of fundamental(ly) are any less (or more) meaningful that those of other contemporary politicians.]

  6. Pool said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 6:20 am

    Also a fundmental-list

  7. D said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 7:45 am

    Aren't you comparing apples and oranges though? Amira's charge is that Gingrich uses these words (too) frequently in speech and if I understand the article correctly, Amira only looked through speech transcripts.

    By contrast, doesn't your search return hits from written material as well as from speech transcripts? Or did I misunderstand your methodology?

    [(myl) You're right that Amira counted words in speeches, while I counted documents (one count per document, regardless of the number of individual uses) on political websites that include (as I explained) many other things besides speeches. (The numbers for Obama are word-counts in speeches, however.) So the comparison is a crude one at best.

    However, if you check the hits on those sites, most of them are in speeches or statements from the candidates — of the first 10 hits for "fundamentally" on the Romney campaign site, for example, 8 are in speeches or other statements by Romney, and one is from a newspaper paraphrase of his position. (The last one is from a Chris Christie's endorsement of him.)

    So I think the counts are a reasonable zeroth-order proxy for usage by the candidate in question. The main point is that fundamental(ly) is a fairly common usage among contemporary American politicians in general, and not just an isolated Newtonian quirk; the secondary point is that this small investigation is consistent with the view that Newt Gingrich is somewhat fonder of fundamental(ly) than his peers are, on the basis of a greater ratio of fundamental(ly) pages to (say) jobs pages or budget pages.]

  8. Adrian said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    I don't think the use of profoundly, deeply and frankly is an attempt to sound more intelligent. More sincere, perhaps. And isn't fundamentally the child of fundamental, rather than its cousin?

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 3, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

    @John Laviolette and Adrian: Deeply can be an attempt to sound intelligent, as in "deeply flawed", but most of the hits at were about "caring deeply" and the like, so they were claims of sincerity as you suggested. An odd one was "The greatest threat to the health security of America's seniors is the President's plan to deeply and systematically ration Medicare." I suspect that's related to "deep cuts".

  10. Jon said,

    December 4, 2011 @ 3:22 am

    I had a colleague who for some years started an extraordinary proportion of sentences with "Basically,…". Then he moved on to substituting "…x indicated that.." for "…x said that.." in almost all cases. He even occasionally generated sentences such as "X indicated 'No, I'm not going to the meeting'".

    I always assumed that quirks like this started out as an unconscious attempt to sound weighty, then became a habit that the speaker cannot hear.

  11. Boris said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    Jon, I say basically way too much in exactly the instances you describe without any conscious effort on my part to sound "weighty". And I guess since I can in fact hear it myself, it's probably even worse than your colleague. It's become just an "umm" or a "like" filler for me.

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