"…oscillated in his words"?

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Ken Bensinger, "Ramaswamy Seemed to Call Zelensky a Nazi. His Campaign Says That’s Not What He Meant." NYT 11/8/2023:

A spokeswoman for Mr. Ramaswamy, Tricia McLaughlin, said that he had not called Mr. Zelensky a Nazi. Instead, Ms. McLaughlin said, he was referring to an event in September in which Mr. Zelensky visited Canada’s Parliament and joined a standing ovation honoring a 98-year-old Ukrainian Canadian war veteran. The problem, it turned out, was that the veteran, Yaroslav Hunka, had served in a division that was under Nazi control during World War II. […]

But she acknowledged that, without context, the remark could be easily misunderstood. “He was talking quickly and kind of oscillated in his words,” she said.

That use of oscillate surprised me. Used with respect to things people say, oscillate comes with an implicitly negative evaluation, as various dictionary glosses suggest:

Wiktionary Sense 2: To vacillate between conflicting opinions
Merriam-Webster Sense 2: to vary between opposing beliefs, feelings, or theories
OED Sense 3: To alternate between two states, opinions, principles, purposes, etc.
Collins Sense 3: If you oscillate between two moods, attitudes, or types of behavior, you keep changing from one to the other and back again

Ms. McLaughlin apparently meant something a bit different, namely that Ramaswamy was oscillating between discussions of two separate contexts, rather between expressions of two conflicting opinions.

I don't think that either interpretation is an effective excuse for Ramaswamy's remarks — which are hard to excuse, as the National Review editorial board observed:

[H]is actual words were that Ukraine “has celebrated a Nazi in its ranks — a comedian in cargo pants, the man called Zelensky,” and it’s the kind of mistake only made by someone trying to muddy the waters as much as possible.

But in any case, McLaughlin has almost a decade of experience in public relations, so you'd think she would have internalized the subtitle of Frank Luntz's 2007 book Words That Work: "It's not what you say, it's what people hear". As he explains (on p. xiv):

Just as a fictional work's meaning may transcend authorial intention, so every message that you bring into the world is subject to the interpretations and emotions of the people who receive it. Once the words leave your lips, they no longer belong to you. We have a monopoly only on our own thoughts. The act of speaking is not a conquest, but a surrender. When we open our mouths, we are sharing with the world — and the world invariably interprets, indeed sometimes shifts and distorts, our original meaning.

Luntz's point applies to the original gaffe as well as the attempted PR correction. And he goes on to give several interesting examples, including the history of "the so-called 'Powell doctrine' of military success":

When it was first articulated in 1991, his exact words referenced the strategy of "decisive force." Moreover, "U.S. National Military Strategy," the Pentagon's annual report on military threats to the United States, called Powell's theory "the theory of decisive force."

In the hands of the reporters and even the historians, however, it has ended up translated as "overwhelming force" and is often now called "the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force." Today, when you search the Lexis-Nexis database for references to "Colin Powell" and "doctrine of decisive force" in U.S. newspapers and wires from 1990 to 2006, you get a mere seven returns. When you run the same search, but using "doctrine of overwhelming force" instead, you get 67 total returns. The same is true for the less limited phrases of just "decisive force" and "overwhelming force," which return 135 and 633 results, respectively. […]

So how did this happen? How does history manage to rewrite itself? The answer is more in the translation than the message itself. Power did use the phrase "overwhelming force" publicly, but just one time, in 1990, and he used it to describe the force necessary to ensure that America "wins decisively" every war it engages. In almost every other intstance, and even in his 1995 memoir My American Journey, Powell reiterates his desire for "decisive force" because it "ends wars quickly and in the long run saves lives."

Ultimately, it is the professional — the journalists, historians, and academics, who translate words into stories — who hold the key to language dissemination. They have to grab people's attention, and "overwhelming force" just sounds more captivating than "decisive force". It creates an image in the mind that goes far beyond the dull, policy-based decisive force terminology. Overwhelming force is about process. Decisive force is about result. Yet no matter how hard Powell has tried to correct and clarity the public record, the world will always think otherwise, and the consequences of that misinterpretation can be seen in Iraq every single day.

Ramaswamy's "oscillation" is a tiny flutter compared to the powerful storm of Powell's doctrine. But the process of "language dissemination" is the same.

Update — just to nail down what he actually said, here's the audio from around 36 minutes into the third Republican debate, which the National Review editors quoted correctly:


  1. Dan Romer said,

    November 10, 2023 @ 8:55 am

    He oscillated between the ridiculous and the outrageous.

  2. Seth said,

    November 10, 2023 @ 8:57 am

    "Tripped over his words" would have been a better excuse. Looking over the whole context, I guess if someone is being very charitable, it's possible to see where he stumbled.


    "Ukraine is not a paragon of democracy. This is a country that has banned 11 opposition parties. It has consolidated all media into one state TV media arm. That’s not democratic. It has threatened not to hold elections this year unless the U.S. forks over more money. That is not democratic. It has celebrated a Nazi in its ranks, the comedian in cargo pants, a man called Zelensky. Doing it in their own ranks, that is not democratic."

    It does sound like he was calling Zelensky a Nazi. But it's conceivable he meant to say something like "[done by] the comedian …". That is, not the Zelensky was a Nazi, but that Zelensky was a joke because he (was a former comedian who) celebrated a Nazi.

    Interestingly, the NYTimes article has the quote as "It has celebrated a Nazi in its ranks. A comedian in cargo pants. The man called Zelensky.".
    That's punctuated differently, and interchanges "A" and "The".

  3. Cervantes said,

    November 10, 2023 @ 9:19 am

    Not that it much matters, but Zelensky is Jewish. So that does make it more offensive.

  4. cameron said,

    November 10, 2023 @ 9:20 am

    note also that "decisive" derives from Latin via French, while "overwhelming" is staunchly English

  5. Craig said,

    November 10, 2023 @ 11:07 am

    Before the debate, Ramaswamy said his strategy for the night was to be "unhinged". Being a mere jackass in the first debate didn't work, and trying to be artificially nice in the second tanked his poll numbers, so this was a desperate attempt at getting some kind of favorable attention from the MAGA base by being as outrageous as possible. Whether he actually believes anything he said, who knows, but he said what he meant to say and was understood to say. He was not misunderstood and the only "oscillation" has been in his campaign strategy.

  6. MattF said,

    November 10, 2023 @ 12:16 pm

    Also, the phrase ‘a man called Zelensky’ appears to me to be a conspiratorial dogwhistle, suggesting some covert complication about Zelensky’s identity.

  7. Viseguy said,

    November 10, 2023 @ 3:06 pm

    I see no oscillation whatsoever in Ramaswamy's language as quoted. He called Zelensky a Nazi — in words that might as well have been spoken by Putin.

  8. Bloix said,

    November 14, 2023 @ 9:54 am

    "Seemed to call." The spineless NYT confirms its refusal to trust its own eyes and ears when gaslighted by a baldfaced liar.

  9. Rapsuttin said,

    November 14, 2023 @ 2:29 pm

    > "Seemed to call." The spineless NYT confirms its refusal to trust its own eyes and ears when gayslighted into a butthurt boldface.

    And for good reasons. Nazi must have one or more different pragmatic readings in ex Soviet states. Technically, the NSDAP was abolished, so there are by definition no Nazis left around. On the other hand, Nazi has existed as a slur long before that. In addition, there are stereotypes which may apply as metonym or metaphor to any group of people. So alternative interpretations may be "Judas", "fashist" or simply "idiot" and the connotation of "clown" is leaning towards the latter, though the implicature must be something more complicated. The NYT has a good sense of news, leaving interpretation to the readers.

    By the way, *oscillitation* strikes me ESL as a more technical term, which may imply effective mean values (root mean square in power applications) resonance (self-resonance, damping) and fundamental frequencies (formants in phonetics, e.g. (do I detect a rising pitch on "Nazi" in the sample?)). More common English words, which don't apply, are wobble, sway, swing, bob, wag. This too leaves wiggle room for interpretation.

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