Jul 11, 2008

Words, words, words

It's been fun (my idea of fun anyway) to chart the migratory patterns of certain words over this election cycle. For more than a year, most of the nation has watched and responded to the same news events, featuring the same players, whose most frequent act is to talk, publically and at length. We've probably listened to more words, from the same people, than at any other time in American history. It's not surprising that some of those words have lodged in the heads of the media, or even snagged in the popular imagination.

Most of them have come from Obama. Slate keeps a running talling of what it calls Obamisms, most of them jokey portamantaus, but there have been other, more significant contributions to the lingua franca. After the debate in which Obama "rejected and denounced" Louis Farrakhan ("If the word 'reject' Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word 'denounce,' then I'm happy to concede the point and I would reject and denounce"), the airwaves were suddenly awash with people rejecting and denouncing one another.

A website called rejectanddenounce.org was even set up for people who wanted to reject and denounce whatever they liked — "Dexy's Midnight Runners," for instance, or "toothpaste on my pants before work." McCain "rejected and repudiated" reverend James Hagee, a more alliterative formulation repeated this week by Jesse's Jackson's son. "I thoroughly reject and repudiate his ugly rhetoric."

Jackson Jr also called his father's rhetoric "divisive" — another Obama favorite, usually coupled with "distracting" to denote trivial non-substantive matters (divisions and distractions and drama that passes for politics”). He has used it to talk about everything from Jeremiah Wright ("these divisions that distract us from our common challenges and our common opportunities and move the country forward"), to Hillary Clinton ("the attacks and distortions that try to distract us from the issues that matter to people's lives") to gay marriage ("the heightened focus on marriage is a distraction from other, attainable measures to prevent discrimination and gays and lesbians").

Much as it seems to double as a term signifying "stuff I don't want to talk about", it has a wonderfully stern, pre-TV, Lincolnesque feel to it. On his show, Steven Colbert put"distractions" on notice. Someone else put "distractions" on a t-shirt. It tells you something about Obama: it's the sort of word useful to someone with an intense, laser-like focus.

The latest Obamaism to catch on: his recent use of "refine" last week to talk about Iraq ("I'm sure I'll have more information and continue to refine my policy") which caused such a fuss. That word, too, seems to have worked its way under newscaster's skins. I just watched an MSNBC news reporter refer to the Democrats "refining, if you will" their energy plans. It's one of the more immediate side-effects of Obama's candidacy, whether he wins or loses: the nation's literacy levels have taken a small bump.

Not that it's all high-fallutin' refinement. As William Safire noted recently, of Obama's use of "gummed up" (“politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence"), "Here was a presidential candidate unafraid to use a slang verb with verve." Safire also admired his use of the word "bone-headed" to describe his dealings with Tony Rezko ( “I am the first one to acknowledge that it was a boneheaded move"). Wrote Safire: "Boneheaded was a perfect choice: not as condemnatory or self-flagellating as stupid, nor as dismissive as foolish, nor as formal as ignorant, nor carrying a secondary drug connotation as dopey, nor as frivolous as silly, nor as inapt as dumb."

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