The run-up to a general election in the United States provides an opportunity for observers of English to see it stretched beyond ordinary limits. The winnowing process that will reduce the various Republican contenders in the race to one has begun and as we plod steadily toward the November election, the rhetoric heats up and we may be tempted to ask, as Alice did of Humpty-Dumpty: “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
Speakers of English who did not grow up in the US may be nonplussed by the recurrence and special emphasis that a few words receive in debate rhetoric: the words are familiar, but the vehemence with which they are bandied about might make you wonder what gives the candidates such animation. The key to understanding this phenomenon lies in the special meaning that a handful of words carry in American politics. Here are a few watchwords that, when used by a candidate for office, may contain meaning or connotation that goes a bit beyond what you will find in a dictionary.
socialist and socialism: Throughout much of the 20th century, and culminating in the McCarthy era witchhunts of the 1950s, communism inspired fear and panic among Americans; it was portrayed as the most tyrannical form of government, and the antithesis of freedom and the American Way. When Soviet and European communism died with a whimper in the late 20th century, there was a need for a new bogeyman, and socialism quickly filled the void. So while Americans today uphold many of the virtues espoused by socialism – such as equality of opportunity and state financing of essential infrastructure and services – being labeled as socialist, or promoting socialism, is equivalent to being called un-American. Not surprisingly, a favorite missile aimed toward president Obama from all of the Republican candidates is that he is a socialist and aims to move the US towards socialism.
liberal: If you read through the several definitions of liberal in the Macmillan Dictionary, you would conclude that being liberal, or even being a liberal, is a Good Thing, and you might consider that you are one yourself. But in American politics, you never want to own the label, and if you are accused of it, the usual thing to do is ignore it or supply as much evidence to the contrary as you can. Americans value liberty (a related word) and personal freedoms perhaps more than any other people in the world, but in politics, liberal is an economical code word meaning “someone who promotes, demands, or gets too much freedom, which will lead to the destruction of society, and I don’t want my taxes to pay for that.”
agenda: the main meaning of agenda is “all the things that need to be done” and so you would think that politicians would embrace the word – they like to be perceived as people that get things done. But there is also a subsidiary meaning of agenda, sense 1a in the Macmillan Dictionary: “a plan that is kept secret.” For this reason, American candidates for office don’t usually talk about their own agendas, for fear of suggesting that they have a secret one. But they talk freely about their opponents’ agendas, and when this happens you can be sure that it’s sense 1a you’re hearing about, or perhaps something even more sinister, along the lines of “something you would hate to see happen in this great country.”
welfare: the preamble to the US constitution states that the document is established, among other reasons, to “promote the general welfare” – and by that it means “the health and happiness of people.” But that’s not the welfare that candidates for office talk about. They mean something a little closer to Macmillan Dictionary definition 1a, “money given to people who do not have work or who are in need.” It’s likely that what they really mean is something along the lines of “money that the government takes from hardworking taxpayers and doles out to feckless and lazy people who can’t be bothered to earn a living.” Thus, modern American politicians do not promote welfare.
Europe and European: Americans are aware of the fun things about Europe – castles and what not – and they’re wild about European fashions, styling, design, and other consumables. But the Europe that politicians talk about these days is not that place at all. It is a scary place, riddled with debt crises, street riots, monetary chaos, and – yes, you guessed it – socialism run amok. President Obama is regularly accused of wanting to make the United States “more like Europe” and the accusers don’t mean that he wants to build more castles, or insure that money spent prudently on health care actually contributes to better health outcomes, such as you find in many European countries. They mean that his agenda is to create a liberal European socialist welfare state.Email this Post