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Spin to win

Early this year I wrote about the special meanings that US politicians may wish to convey when they bandy particular words. Now Americans are in the deep end of the campaign for the general election and the words are still flying. About 70 million people watched the first of three scheduled debates between President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. That’s the greatest audience turnout for a presidential debate since 1980. Transcripts of the debate were available almost immediately, providing some opportunities to slice and dice the contenders’ words.

First, a few statistics. I poured the first 3000 words that flew from the mouths of the politicians into a counting machine to point up some contrasts in usage. This part of the debate was centered largely on the economy and Mr. Romney’s favorite word regarding this topic, perhaps not surprisingly, was tax. He used it 60 times, more than any other noun he used, in contrast to Mr. Obama’s 29 mentions of tax. Taxes become revenue for the government, when it waves the magic wand that turns your money into their money. Mr. Romney mentioned revenue five times in his first 3000 words, Mr. Obama used it nine times. The revenue:tax ratios for the two gentlemen are Romney 1:12, Obama 1:3. Significant? You decide.

A couple of words in the debate were used exclusively by one contender or the other. One of these is loophole. Mr. Obama used it nine times throughout the debate, once even identifying loopholes with Mr. Romney’s policy, but Romney never used the word. Loophole is an old word in English, originally denoting a small opening in a wall through which a weapon can be fired, but most dictionaries don’t bother with that definition now. Mr. Obama was talking about loopholes in tax laws that enable the rich to avoid paying taxes. Whatever Mr. Romney’s disposition is toward the scourge of loopholes, he fears something else much more: trickle-down government. This was a term used exclusively—perhaps even coined—by him. If you examine the definition of trickle-down you might imagine that it’s a good thing because it involves benefit for the poor. Mr. Romney has turned the meaning upside down, however; he conjures a scenario in which the pernicious interference of big government trickles down to spoil the life and fun of everyone. He sums it up pretty well in this quotation from near the beginning of the debate:

I’m concerned that the path that we’re on has just been unsuccessful. The president has a view very similar to the view he had when he ran four years [ago], that a bigger government, spending more, taxing more, regulating more—if you will, trickle-down government—would work.

Another word that figured prominently in the debate was entitlement; its career in politics has been laid out expertly by linguist Mark Liberman and commenters at Language Log in a post last week. It’s a very loaded word with a specific meaning in US legislation and the way you feel about it may depend largely on whether you are on the receiving end of an entitlement or not. Americans seem to like entitlements that benefit their own cohort (or one they expect to belong to later), but they don’t mind disparaging entitlements that benefit groups to which they don’t belong.

Mr. Obama used entitlement  first, equating it with the programs that most Americans feel very strongly should be preserved—Social Security and Medicare—which benefit older Americans:

And that’s the perspective I bring when I think about what’s called entitlements. You know, the name itself implies some sense of dependency on the part of these folks. These are folks who’ve worked hard, like my grandmother, and there are millions of people out there who are counting on this.

Mr. Romney, perhaps in response to this positive spin, did not disagree, noting that

our seniors depend on these programs, and I know anytime we talk about entitlements, people become concerned that something’s going to happen that’s going to change their life for the worse.

That’s a different tune than Mr. Romney was singing some time earlier in his now infamous “47%” speech, in which he noted:

All right, there are 47 percent who are with [the president], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.

Mr. Romney has since distanced himself from these remarks, conceding that he said “something that’s just completely wrong.”

The word welfare, which we talked about last January, was sagely avoided by both men in connection with its core meaning—the health and happiness of people—because you can’t use it that way in American political discourse. Mr. Obama, however, did use the term corporate welfare:

The oil industry gets $4 billion a year in corporate welfare. Basically, they get deductions that those small businesses that Governor Romney refers to, [. . .] don’t get.

The media consensus of the debate seems to be that Mr. Romney came out on top: he removed his gloves and Mr. Obama did not. Stay tuned for what is sure to be a more heated debate the next time around.

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Orin Hargraves


  • Interesting to see how the presidential race is, as always, having its effects on language. I agree (with you and Mark Liberman in Language Log) that ‘entitlement’ seems to be undergoing ‘pejoration’ to become a more negatively-charged term. Romney and others use it to attack the poor, but from looking at our data it’s clear that the expression ‘ a sense of entitlement’ (now very negative) has a marked tendency to be used about the rich and famous. We hear for example of U.S. football stars who, “fawned over by everyone they’ve met, have a well-developed sense of entitlement”, or about the late Alan Clark, an aristocratic British politician who lived in a castle, “whose diaries reek of a sense of entitlement and the hankering for the preservation of privilege”.

  • Interesting points, Michael. This reminds me of another marked use of the idea of entitlement: I have a friend who works in mental health care and has spent some time on the staff in mental hospitals. He says they have a term “entitled patient,” that designates a certain fairly common type: a patient who is aware of the rules of the hospital but thinks that those rules do not apply to him or her. Except in a strict legal sense, it seems there is always a grudge going on somewhere when there is talk of entitlement, and I wonder if legislators chose poorly when they decided to use the term with regard to legislation.

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