Political calling? Listening closely
to politicians …

Posted by on November 25, 2010

This week Dawn Nell, the second in a series of guest bloggers who are contributing to this blog over a two-week period, is looking at the ways that you (users) search Macmillan Dictionary. Dawn, who has written before on this blog, is an historian and blogger, working on the history of publishing. She was born in Cape Town, and these days lives mostly in Oxford and on Twitter.

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Adlai Stevenson, who twice ran for President in the US (unsuccessfully), described a politician as someone ‘who approaches every subject with an open mouth’. It’s a caricature many of us will recognize. Politicians and political writers are routinely ridiculed for their bending of language to spin, persuade, cajole, and even, dare I say, mislead the public. Whatever we think of the content of what politicians say however, the way they express it is frequently impressive. Political speeches and writing overflow with metaphor and turns of phrase that influence our own use of language.

Many of the top searches on Macmillan Dictionary relate to current trends in political discourse. Stan Carey recently wrote about the term fit for purpose, which is just one of the political catchphrases that appear in the top UK and US searches on Macmillan Dictionary for October/November. Others include game changer, double-edged sword and clarion call.

Clarion call particularly seems a term that has rolled straight from the mouths of politicians. They seem to come out with the term all the time, and yet, am I right in thinking it’s not the sort of thing you’re likely to say in everyday conversation? For example, I’m trying to imagine myself for a moment saying something like, ‘The dog’s whimpering was a clarion call for us to go for a walk.’ It seems an overblown phrase for the domestic setting, one that really requires an audience, a podium, and a political campaign. It’s a call to action that evokes both its Latin origins in clarus meaning clear, and the clarion, a brass instrument that was a precursor to the trumpet and used to direct troops on medieval battlefields.

And yet this seemingly archaic term, evoking an extinct musical instrument, continues to be used in speeches and newspaper articles, and in fact has shown remarkably consistent usage over the last decade.

In fact the term clarion call was current all throughout the twentieth century as well.

So what could explain the consistent appeal of this catchphrase? Part of the answer may lie in the way it evokes images of military triumph; it is after all potentially helpful to a politician to associate themselves linguistically with imagery of heroic acts and victory. Certainly it’s more helpful than the alternative.

Also a great deal of what politicians write is designed to be spoken aloud and it is well-known that they frequently employ phonological devices such as alliteration, consonance and assonance to make their speeches more memorable. So another reason the catchphrase clarion call remains with us is because the strong alliteration it contains is so ripe with phonological flourish.

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