Category Archives: Politics

How politicians invent new words or repurpose existing ones to try and win the political argument

The Transracial Debate

There are times when a word becomes prominent because it has been coined for something new. There are times when a word becomes prominent because it has become a social media buzzword. But then there are times when the choice of a single word is so inflammatory it can define and fuel a debate and become the single term by which something is remembered. So it is with Transracial.

Transracial is not a new word, but it has now been given a new meaning. Correctly defined as ‘crossing racial boundaries’, and being used for people of one race who are raised in another, the word has shot into into public consciousness because of a redefinition which has proved divisive in the extreme.

The debate started following the story of Rachel Dolezal, the head of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who revealed that despite living as a black woman, she had actually been born white. When she went on television to explain herself, she said that she was ‘transracial’, in other words that she felt like a black woman in a white woman’s body and had made an apparently legitimate decision to change herself in order to satisfy this.

Linguistically, the move is borne of the same convention that allows Transgender or Transsexual, where the issue of someone’s sense of gender and actual gender are at odds with each other. But as many commentators have pointed out, this is not an acceptable parallel and therefore cannot be governed by the same linguistic parallel.

There have been a number of well-thought out and fascinating rebuttals of the use of the term, mainly pointing out that this is not a word of choice, not a word that people can use about themselves in this way. In fact, the argument confirms that it is a destructive term when used like this, because it is taking a word that is used to describe large numbers of people who have had difficult upbringings as a result of being transracial and belittling those difficulties by appropriating it as something that feels like a lifestyle choice. This argument has been well advanced in the media and across Twitter.

So linguistically,what does this mean for the future of the word? Well one thing is completely clear – transracial is not going to be changing its meaning any time soon, the original sense will remain the only sense and the semantic spin that Ms Dolezal utilised will not be adopted.

But that does not mean that the self-deterministic sense will be forgotten. When we come to look at the words of the year, Transracial will be right up there, because there is no disputing it is one of the year’s most used and controversial terms. And while the Dolezal spin will be remembered, it will ultimately be as an anti-meaning, a clear definition of what Transracial is not. In future writing on transracial people, I would expect it to become a touchpoint to rail against, a reference point for everything which people fail to understand about those whose lives this affects.

So, bizarrely, Dolezal has contributed to the debate and the issues of transracial people precisely by getting the term wrong. She has brought the issue as a whole to the wider population, and created a meaning which people can now remember and reject. Probably not what she had in mind.

Are Empty Podiums Here To Stay?

Amid the hullabaloo over whether David Cameron will be prepared to debate against his political rivals this year in the run-up to the UK’s General Election, one thing that has not gained much attention yet is the possibility that a new term will enter the political language.

Mr Cameron has said that the debates cannot go ahead without the Green Party, and suggestions have been made that if it is decided to hold them without the Prime Minister, an empty podium will be provided should he change his mind. And so the practice of providing such an unattended lectern has been tentatively named ’empty podiuming’.

This is of course a ghastly and unwieldy term which is highly unlikely to catch on, simply because it is too ugly to be taken seriously. However, Empty Podium itself sounds like a term which could metamorphose from being simply a description of what might be provided to a term which becomes inescapable as the campaign fires up.

Will it ever be more than a reference point for this election, or could it become a tactic of the future, that anybody who refuses to take part in something will be threatened with an Empty Podium. It is too early to say, of course, but this could be the genesis of a new term in the political vernacular.

Grubering Set To Die Hard

Words can be incredibly powerful in the world of politics, so the US Republican party must be rubbing its hands together with glee at its linguistic triumph of the last few days.

Videos have emerged of economist Jonathan Gruber talking about President Obama’s flagship healthcare plan, known as Obamacare. Mr Gruber was one of the chief architects behind it, but in the videos, he is quoted as saying: “Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical for the thing to pass.” Subsequent videos of him citing the inability of Americans to understand the issues have emerged to really ram the point home.

And so Grubering has been born. Defined as lying to sell a political policy, the word is exploding across social media and the internet, with the Republicans seizing on it with delight. Swiftly derivatives are appearing, such as gruberish and gruberism. In fact, a whole family of words summing up the concept of lying and deceit as a political weapon to get a political bill to pass has now emerged, and shows no sign of stopping.

Words can be very powerful political tools to encapsulate a debate, they become a simple tool of reference. If a word such as this can stick in people’s minds, it will instantly serve a purpose which a lengthy speech might struggle to encapsulate. Democrats will probably be grateful it has emerged now, rather than in an election cycle, when a word can have the power to influence the result. Nevertheless, they will be hoping the word will have run its course by the time the presidential race begins in 2016. But my hunch is that this is a word that might prove to have more durability than that.

Pairage Can Never Be Equal

It’s been some time since I have felt compelled to write about the issue of gay marriage, largely because politicians have refrained from trying to coin new words to describe these unions.

However, Utah Congressman Kraig Powell has become the latest politician to show that he simply doesn’t get it. The Republican has suggested that the best way to get round a current round of delays in the Supreme Court regarding gay marriage is to create a new word, suggesting this will solve the problem. His suggestion is that such unions be called Pairages.

My view on this remains exactly as it did last time I castigated a politician for suggesting an alternative word, in that case the word being Sarriage. The act of creating a new word automatically confers a different status on the act, thereby removing the equality that legislation legalising it is designed to give it. What is always presented as a neat way to solve administrative problems is actually a way to deny people the rights they are fighting for.

Hopefully this latest neologism will go the way of all the others and be nothing more than an idea that never gets any traction. That will leave courts and politicians free to get on with the important task of ensuring that everybody has the same rights as everybody else when they have found their perfect match.

Will De-Americanization Lead To Chinafication?

If history teaches us anything, it is that the world order changes over time, and yesterday’s superpower is today’s underling. And as we get deeper into the 21st century, so the growing influence of China reminds us that the world in 100 years’ time may have a very different structure of influence to that which exists at present.

So it is interesting to see a linguistic nod in that direction emerging from Chinese sources. The Xinhua news agency published an opinion piece on the US Government shutdown, and posed the question of whether it was time to prepare for a “De-Americanized” world.

It’s not for Wordability to analyse the political and economic arguments surrounding this article, nor to comment on the myriad responses that the piece has garnered. Instead, I simply comment on the amount of attention this has drawn, the number of times the word de-Americanized, or de-Americanization, has now been used in response, and congratulate the Chinese author on coining a simple but effective term to really kick-start the debate and encapsulate the essence of the issue.

This demonstrates once again that in the field of political altercation, the side that comes out on top is sometimes the one that find the right term and defines the debate by controlling the language of the headlines. As the years move on, we may see de-Americanization becoming increasingly used as a term, and it may become the standard word for describing how power is shifting halfway round the world.

Americanization features in all major online dictionaries to mean making something American in character . Its newly-formed antonym will have to wait its turn to take its place. But as it gains acceptance, I wonder if a Chinese equivalent of Americanization will start to be used. Chinafication anybody?

Brexit Should Head For The Exit

I thought I was joking last year when I speculated on where Greece’s possible departure from the Eurozone might take the English language. Silly me.

While Grexit flourished as the buzzword for what Greece might do, I didn’t really think that linguistic development around the word ‘Exit’ was here to stay. But Brexit has changed all of that.

Brexit, referring to the United Kingdom’s possible abandonment of the European Union, enjoyed isolated appearances in 2012 but has really jumped to the forefront for headline writes and commentators in the last few days, as David Cameron girds himself to speak about where the country sits in relation to Europe and prepares people for some sort of referendum.

So what to make of this new form of word creation? Clearly it has gone beyond the specifics of leaving the Eurozone, as the UK’s connection is related to the whole EU. And while there remains a European connection, it is easy to see this type of formation now spreading its tentacles towards other types of exit.

Of course, accuracy isn’t everything. The debate is over the United Kingdom leaving the EU, not Britain, but frankly, Ukexit doesn’t cut it as a new word, while at least Brexit sounds like a word, even if it jars somewhat.

But the only way we will really know if this is here to stay is if it moves away from the corridors of Brussels. If Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction were to be reduced to ”Ursinexit’, then we will have confirmation that exit rule has made an entrance that is here to stay.

:: Don’t forget that Eastwooding With the Mother Flame: The Words of 2012 is still available for Kindle or in paperback. Click here for more information.

Don’t Fall Over The Fiscal Cliff

There is a late entrant in the word of the year stakes. More likely, there is a front-runner for the 2013 crown. It is becoming hard to avoid the Fiscal Cliff.

The Fiscal Cliff is a term that has been coined to describe a looming financial precipice in the United States. It is a confluence of coming togethers of the end of certain tax laws and a decrease in Government spending, and commentators are worried about the effect on the US economy if legislation is not passed which could prevent all of this from happening.

Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve, is being credited with coining the phrase, having used it in evidence to the House Financial Services Commission at the end of February. He actually isn’t the first, as it appeared in analysis of George Bush’s tax cuts two years after the end of his presidency. But there is no doubt that Mr Bernanke’s usage put the term on the linguistic map.

That said, it is only in the last few weeks that it has found its way into general conversation and started appearing in earnest across the media. Given that the fiscal cliff is just around the corner, that is not really a surprise.

Maybe what is a surprise is that the term has simply been accepted and is being used by everybody, probably without really understanding it. I feel the same way about it as I did about haircut entering the vernacular last year – a term that was popular among economic commentators crossed over into the mainstream and using it seemed to confer some kind of special, inside knowledge on the users, it is almost said with a nod and a wink to those also on the inside.

For the rest of us, we hear it and then have to go and look it up and try and understand it. Shorthand phrases are good for encapsulating stories and letting everybody know what the subject is, but when they are used regularly in conversation as if everybody knows what they mean, then that can become annoying.

Thank goodness the Simpsons have been around to help explain it.