Change Leads the Change in Election Language

Lovers of new words will have been delighted to see the success that Rick Santorum had in the Iowa caucuses this week. But while the former senator will have been equally pleased at making a good start in the lengthy journey to the White House, he will not want to be reminded about his contribution to neologisms.

In 2003, Mr Santorum made some comments in an interview which were viewed as anti-gay. Shortly afterwards, gay rights activist Dan Savage wrote about the remarks and was encouraged by a reader to launch a competition to find a new sexual definition for Santorum in order to forever associate the politician with his remarks.

There were more than 3,000 entries and the final result, which I won’t repeat here for readers of a delicate disposition but can be found here, is still the top item which comes out when you search for ‘Santorum’ on Google.

It’s certain that Mr Santorum would not have wanted this in people’s minds when he plotted his assault on the presidency, and frankly, it would have been the kind of thing that could have been dismissed as old trivia. Until Mr Santorum contacted Google in September 2011 and asked them to remove the offending website from their indexes. And Google, predictably, said no. Well done Mr Santorum, that certainly helped people to forget about the issue.

Wordability finds this tale interesting on two counts. Firstly, it is unusual to actually solicit a new meaning for a word – these things tend to evolve naturally, so the competition aspect of this quest is refreshingly different.

The second reason is more to do with politics, and specifically American election politics. Wordability will be following the US election year with great interest to see which words emerge as the dominant ones. Politicians everywhere, but especially in the United States, are masters at changing the nuances of a particular word and repeatedly using it during a campaign to subtly influence the mindset of voters.

The Republican party are regarded as formidable masters of this skill. For example, before 2004, you might have been forgiven for thinking that a flip-flop was not much more than some fairly flimsy footwear that you would wear to the beach. But the Republicans noticed how Democrat candidate John Kerry had a habit of changing his mind on key issues, and the notion of Kerry and the flip-flop was born. The potency of that one word was a key part of the ultimately successful campaign against him, and received widespread coverage.

You might also think that the word ‘liberal’ is not necessarily a bad one and simply suggests an even-minded and tolerant approach to the issues. Yet in the United States, it has become a term that means quite left wing and prone to overspending Government money, and Republican politicians use it as a word with which to savage their Democrat adversaries.

But with the Democrats dominating the 2008 election, it was no surprise that a word from that campaign not only helped the Barack Obama victory campaign but was also the most significant word of the year. That word was ‘change’.

The subtle shift in meaning that the Obama campaign achieved was actually quite stunning. Of course, any politician campaigning to unseat a rival party is going to be preaching a message of change. ‘Vote for me, I’m exactly the same as the other guy’ is a surefire way of making sure that other guy wins.

But what the now-president did was to make ‘change’ something so much more than just ‘something different’. It became a potent word meaning not only a break from the current situation but also a golden and more rosy future, that the change that was coming was a better life, a greater life, a life to which we all aspire. No matter that he did not have to define how this change would be achieved, no problem that offering change is quite clearly the most obvious thing that any politician should do. No, all he had to do was keep on offering this mystical ‘change’ to all who were listening, and the quite hypnotic effect it had on voters propelled him to victory.

One caucus in, we are a long way off knowing who will be taking on the incumbent later this year and of course we have no idea who will be inaugurated in January 2013. But we can say that lovers of political language change will certainly be winners, as we wait to see what linguistic dexterity the next 10 months will bring. Let the battle commence.

6 thoughts on “Change Leads the Change in Election Language

  1. krismerino

    Excellent post. I’ve always been fascinated to see how subtle (and in the case of Santorum, not so sublet) changes in the meaning of our words end up driving the political discourse.

    Thanks for writing this. Loved it.

  2. George Morrison

    It is a well known fact that politicians never learn from their mistakes or the mistakes of others.
    A certain young man some years ago wrote:
    “The moving finger writes and having writ moves on,
    nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line
    nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.
    ’tis a pity they do not take his advice and apply it, not only to their fingers but also to their tongue.
    George Morrison

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