Category Archives: Politics

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

Will The Whitelash Last?

One of the strangest things about the tumultuous political events of this year is that the reality of what it will all mean is still to come. 2016 is the year of Trump, the year of Brexit. But in some senses, it isn’t at all. The effects of the Trump presidency will not be fully felt until the start of 2017, the ramifications of Brexit will play out over a number of years. This is the year when the world changed – the next few years will tell us how much.

From a linguistic point of view, it is inevitable that new words and phrases will start to come into our language as the new realities take effect. One that has been around since last year is Trumpism, but interestingly it still feels a little like a word in search of a fully defined meaning. What is clear is that in the short-term, it will be used as the catch-all headline term for all policies and agendas set by the future US President, and a clear understanding of the values it represents will only really become apparent over the next few months.

A clearer word emerged in the immediate aftermath of the election. CNN commentator Van Jones felt that the result could partly be explained by a backlash of white people in the States against a black president, while the other issues of racism present in those working definitions of Trumpism also played their part. He termed the reaction a Whitelash, a word that has quickly caught hold and become of the key buzzwords that commentators the world over have used when describing the result.

It is understandable and tempting for people to hang on to words such as this as they seek to make sense of the week we have just witnessed. The reason this one seems to work is that it gets to the heart of one of the key issues of the election and brings to the fore issues of racism which are disturbing to many of us, making those ideas central to the overall result. I suspect that the term whitelash will be around in political comment for some time to come, especially with a round of volatile elections in Europe just around the corner.

On a lighter note, it was almost inevitable that UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson would try to get in on the act. He has been reusing Gloomadon Poppers with almost monotonous regularity over the last few months, but this week tried for a new entry in the annals of words that nobody will ever use with ‘whinge-o-rama’, saying that the collective whinge-o-rama over the Trump victory had to stop. I wonder if there was a whinge-o-rama in the Johnson household when his bid to become Prime Minister became unstuck? There may well be one when he finds that yet another of his neologisms has disappeared without a trace.

Four years ago, I wrote a number of blog posts about Mitt Romney and his almost insatiable need to mangle the English language at any given opportunity. But this year’s election does not feel like a time to make jokes about the way words are used. I now need to keep track of the words and phrases used by the new administration to see how language is being modfied to exert influence and whether words are being coined or redefined to create danger in both subtle and unsubtle ways. The power of the spoken word and its ability to create great change and danger is now more real than it has been for a long time. The internet allows ideas to spread like wildfire. New words and meanings can take hold almost before we have realised. Rhetoric can have a profound effect that nobody expected. Tracking how these things evolve is now increasingly vital.

Put your money on Brexit

Union JackI am not a betting man, so will not be putting a penny on the outcome of the EU Referendum later this year. The fact that I haven’t got a clue which way it will go is also a contributory factor to that decision.

But if I could find a bookmaker who would give me odds on the Oxford Word of the Year for 2016, I think I could put a wager down now and be confident of collecting my winnings in time for Christmas.

Brexit was not born this year. But this is the year in which it has blossomed and bloomed and become the go-to word to encapsulate the campaign to leave the European Union. The Leave campaign? Doesn’t resonate. The Brexit campaign? Bingo!

I first wrote about Brexit in January 2013, when the word began to be used in relation to a possible UK referendum on the EU at some distant time in the future. At the time I said I was surprised to see that Grexit had spawned cousins and was not just a one-off, especially as Brexit remains as inaccurate then as it was now. We are not debating a British exit from Europe, rather a UK-wide one. UKexit still doesn’t cut it.

Nonetheless, the word works. People understand it, it is an easy term to rally behind, it seems to fully encapsulate its subject. It has comfortably bequeathed us Brexiteers to mean people supporting a Brexit, and we all just nod and get on with it. Sometimes a word just fits, and this is one of those times.

In fact, so little do people now care about its etymology that they use Brexit as the catch-all term for stories about Northern Ireland as well, paying no heed to the linguistic snub to which the country is being subjected.

Already secure in the Oxford Dictionary online annals, the word is now fully established in the English language. If the vote in June goes in favour of staying, Brexit will still hang around to fuel the debate. After all, as the Scottish Referendum has shown us, just because a vote ends up leaving the status quo intact it doesn’t mean that the debate over having the vote again won’t recur.

And of course, if the UK does leave the EU, then we won’t be able to escape the word Brexit at all. Either way, I think its coronation as the word of the year is already assured.

Don’t be Scared of Putinophobia

There has been an interesting example this week of of a neologism being used to deflect attention from the substance of a story.

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin (image http://www.kremlin.ru)

Amid the many people entangled in the aftermath of the leak of documents from Panama is the Russian President Vladimir Putin. I should of course point out that the President himself was not mentioned at all in Panamanian dispatches – instead, a number of people or organisations with connections to him have been cited. Such revelations inevitably focused attention on President Putin himself.

So how did his official spokesman deal with all of this? Simple. He used a word nobody had ever heard before and, sheep-like, everybody focused on that word and used it in their headlines, rather than actually pursuing the story.

The word was ‘Putinophobia’.

Dmitry Peskov said: “This Putinophobia abroad has reached such a point that it is in fact taboo to say something good about Russia, or about any actions by Russia or any Russian achievements.” Brilliant moving of the goalposts. Invent a term which everybody will latch onto and is likely to be used again, and use it as a way to get people to focus on something else rather than the substance of the story. The art form of coining a new word as a way of owning the story.

Given the way that David Cameron has now become embroiled in the Panamian fallout, can we expect to see one of his spokesmen using this formulation as a way of moving the attention away from him? Maybe the criticism will be described as ‘Cameronophobia’ or ‘Toryphobia’. However, given the level of criticism currently being levelled at the Prime Minister, it is hard to imagine #toryphobia replacing #resigncameron as a popular Twitter hashtag any time soon.

A Squirmish In The Polls

As US election year dawns, so the role of language in the campaign will come to the fore once more. During the 2012 election campaign, I wrote about how the finding of the right word could potentially swing the entire poll, while also noting how Mitt Romney’s travails with language could have contributed to his dismal final result.

So it’s disappointing to note that in the 2016 version so far, the times that language has come to the fore have been more the subject of ridicule and controversy than anything else. Last month it was Donald Trump and his use of the term schlonged. This time around, Trump is still at the centre of things, but even more central to events is Sarah Palin.

It is the use of the word ‘Squirmish’ which has caused all the fuss this time. In her much-dissected endorsement of the Republican front-runner, Palin referred to squirmishes happening around the world, meaning a kind of low-level skirmish. Interestingly, after the inevitable initial amusement, criticism and Twitter reaction, there seems to have been an almost grudging respect for the term. Some have said they find it actually quite useful, while dictionary.com used it as a way to discuss the way that words are introduced in election campaigns generally, while also saying Palin was not the first person to use it.

While I doubt that Palin was aware of the 19th century citations to which dictionary.com alludes, and whether it was a deliberate neologism or a cock-up, there is no doubt that squirmishes has emerged as the first word of this year to be associated with the campaign, and it appears to have a certain amount of momentum to keep it in the public domain for at least a few weeks.

I suppose the level of squirmishes between the candidates might dictate how long it stays current for.

Schlonged By Trump

The language of political debate has always fascinated me, and the way that the choice of words can influence the direction of a campaign can never be underestimated.

How disappointing then that when the subject of language comes to the fore in the American Presidential campaign, it should be over the nuances of a crude piece of Yiddish. But how much less surprising that Donald Trump should be at the centre of it.

Basically, Trump voiced the opinion that Democrat rival Hillary Clinton had been ‘schlonged’ by Barack Obama in the 2008 election. He claims to have used it as a term for ‘beaten’, claiming it was just a description for her having lost out. But as has been demonstrated widely online in the last few days, ‘schlong’ is Yiddish slang for penis, and the verbal form of that is not exactly common usage in the way that Trump claims. Cue much debate about the grammatical rules behind creating a verb from a noun, analysis of just how little usage schlonged has had over the years and fortunately very little linking to the Urban Dictionary definition of the term.

Questions have also been asked over whether Trump genuinely thought that his use of the term was correct, or whether it was actually a sexist put-down and therefore much more deliberate. I think the jury is out on this point, but regardless of whether it was intended or accidental, the put-down element is unavoidable and has been fundamental to the discussion that this comment has created.

So what does this mean for the future of English – is schlonged going to emerge as a new piece of widely used Yiddish slang, or will it just be something talked about purely in the context of this Trump/Clinton contretemps.

My instinct is the latter. Trump is such an extreme and divisive character, it is hard to imagine a term that he has used taking off widely, as people will not want to be associated with it, especially as it is a long way from being an innocent put-down. I think it is likely to be a term that is remembered, but not one that enters everyday use. It is however a shame that one of the first linguistic stories of the campaign is this one.

And if Trump’s campaign ends with him losing, I wonder how the competition will refer to his defeat?

From Corbynmania to Trumpism

There are currently election campaigns taking place on either side of the Atlantic, both of which have conspired to be a great deal more interesting that we might have expected. In the UK, the election of a new leader for the opposition Labour party would normally be something of no more than passing interest to most, until the result is announced. And yet, the story has maintained its place in the headlines as the result looms on Saturday.

Meanwhile in the States, the early skirmishes in the battle to become the Republican nomination for president in a year’s time might not normally be front page news as a bloated field battles to be winnowed down to a more manageable number.

So what has elevated these two stories to heights which might not have been expected? I think the answer is the presence of a maverick candidate in each one, somebody who has emerged wholly unexpectedly from the pack to lead the polling and thereby create a wave of momentum which opponents currently seem powerless to stop. In the UK, it is veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn. In the US, it is business legend Donald Trump.

Wordability’s interest comes off the back of that. For each of the leading men, a word has been coined to become the key term for their campaign, and they are now bandied about as the standard ways to refer to what is going on. In the UK, we have Corbynmania. In the US, it’s Trumpism.

Of the two, I think Corbynmania is easier to explain and understand. The word refers to the groundswell of support for the 66-year-old and the general sense that he has created a new excitement and engagement in politics, there is currently a hysteria around him which appears to be carrying him to victory. The word describes the mood.

The big question is what will happen once the election is over. Clearly if Corbyn loses, then Corbynmania as a movement is over, in much the same way that Cleggmania is a historical reminder of 2010. If he wins, then it certainly continues, at least for the short term, but could then easily go the same way as the erstwhile Lib Dem leader if his tenure in the hot seat turns out to be less than stellar. Either way, I expect Corbynmania to be remembered as a key word of this year, even if it doesn’t have longevity.

Donald Trump campaign websiteTrumpism is an altogether different case. Rather than a description of support, Trumpism is an ethos and an ideology of itself, and is used in commentary as a way of distancing the Republican front-runner from the rest of the field. You either believe in Trumpism or you don’t, and increasingly, it seems that vast numbers of Americans do.

The problem for me, looking out from the other side of the ocean, is trying to get a true handle on what Trumpism actually means. Even the different definitions of it online seem to be struggling slightly. Is it an ’empty kind of mean-spiritness’, a form of fascism or ‘the whining of the privileged‘. I must admit I don’t entirely get it.

Maybe it’s one of those things you simply understand if you are in the States. If you live and work there, Donald Trump represents something appreciably different from what has gone before and taps into values which it is entirely possible we outsiders fail to grasp and which resonates with enough Americans to make it significant. That could explain why Trumpism may be here to stay for some time.

Well-chosen words have always had the power to influence political debate and campaigning. As these two election battles have shown, winning the lexical war can often be the path to winning the ballot as well.

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.