I took the day off from work last Friday, and when I returned on Monday my department had been transformed into a Halloween spectacle that my coworkers declared spooktacular. There were cobwebs and orange lights and fake skeletons and balloon bats. Seriously. It looked like Halloween had vomited all over my cubicle—in a (mostly) good way.
I work in marketing and, for many brands, Halloween time means stretching subject lines and ad copy with ghostly themes and (often poorly thought out) Halloween puns. This extends into everyday life as well. You might make jokes about how “scary good” something is or call small children “little monsters.” Or you’ll make puns like boo-tiful or sand-witch. My favorite variation of this Halloween wordplay trend, however, is the portmanteau.
You know this one. When you take part of two or more words and mash them together into a Frankenstein word that means something new, like spooktacular, Shocktober, or Frankenfoods.
A (Suit)Case for Portmanteaus
Portmanteaus—which combine parts of multiple words to create a new word—are one of several major ways a language can get new words. This is slightly different than a compound word, like greenhouse or suitcase, which describes one concept using two complete words (suit + case = suitcase). A portmanteau is made up of two or more word parts, which can be whole words or just parts of words. Rather than sticking two words together, you blend them. For example, the word spork takes just the first bit of spoon and the last bit of fork, rather than using the whole word from each (spoonfork).
Appropriately, portmanteau is itself a blend of two Latin words: portare (to carry) and mantellum (cloak); as its origins might suggest, it is also the word for special kind of suitcase with both a compartment for hanging clothes and a normal suitcase compartment for folding clothes. Lewis Carol was the first to use the word portmanteau in its word-blending sense—using the suitcase definition as a metaphor for this type of word creation.
In Carol’s novel Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty talks to Alice about the mashed up words like “slithy” in the “Jabberwocky” poem from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, comparing them to this suitcase with two purposes packed into one.
Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy”. “Lithe” is the same as “active”. You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word.
. . .Well then, “mimsy” is “flimsy and miserable” (there’s another portmanteau for you).
These types of blend words pop up all the time: infomercial, guesstimate, jeggings, Gerrymandering, Brexit. Some have become so ingrained in our lexicon, we don’t even think of them as word blends anymore: smog, motel. There isn’t one clear pattern for how these words are formed, but they all emerge (as many new words do) because of some perceived gap in our lexicon. We decide we need a word to describe a chocolate addiction (chocoholic) or a meal in between breakfast and lunch, hopefully accompanied by mimosas (brunch), and the word takes off in popularity…or it doesn’t. Sometimes the words feel forced, and other times they feel natural. But it’s all part of the process of creating new language.
How We Create Spooktacular Speech
So what about Halloween portmanteaus? They may seem like a more recent invention, but as Atlantic writer Spencer Kornhaber notes, the word spooktacular was used as early as 1897 (though it didn’t become popular until later). Others are much more recent. While the meaning of Frankenfood (a genetically modified food) extends well beyond Halloween, it’s partially derived from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and this word originated in the early 1990s.
I should note, the Halloween portmanteaus I’ve described so far are more than just puns, though they are punny too. When you call someone your ghoulfriend you’re just making a joke based on the similar sounds of girl and ghoul—you might not necessarily mean your girlfriend is also ghoulish. But Shocktober means something different than October does—it highlights an emphasis on scary movies, horror, and other frightening things during Halloween month. The new word combines of the meaning of both the original words to create something new.
There’s something about Halloween that gets people excited, and that excitement translates into language innovation and wordplay. I love that all over Twitter, people change their account names to add Halloween references and emojis (e.g., changing Sarah to Scare-ah), and Halloween parties and festivals embrace language play (like a Howl-o-ween meetup I found). If there’s a Christmas or Independence Day or Labor Day version of Shocktober, I haven’t heard it (but if you have, tell me about it!). People like to judge other people’s language, and that doesn’t change at Halloween, but there does seem to be a greater allowance for fooling around with words. It feels more permissible, as it should be all the time. And that’s pretty spooktacular.
Confession: There was a brief period in my life when I used the word hella unironically.
It wasn’t because I’m from the West Coast, where that word is a lot more common. I’m not. It wasn’t because I’d grown up with that word as part of my dialect. I hadn’t. It wasn’t even because I decided to adopt the word after browsing Urban Dictionary. I didn’t. I did, however, have a friend who used that word hella often. (It still sounds very awkward when I use it.)
And so, sometimes when I spoke to her, I picked it up.
Why did I do this? According to University of California Communications Professor Howard Giles, people often make small adjustments when conversing with others to “emphas[ize] or minimize the social difference between the others whom they interact with.”
According to Dr. Giles’ Communication Accommodation Theory, we tend to adopt the speaking patterns of those around us—patterns like word choice, pauses, or hand gestures—which can make us seem more polite and likable in social situations. When we mimic others’ conversational cues like this, we engage in linguistic convergence—building rapport by minimizing the social differences between speakers. So, if we’re speaking to someone who talks with their hands, we might start using hand gestures as well. It’s a subtle way of connecting with them by adapting to their verbal and non-verbal patterns. (You can also emphasize the social differences between yourself and the other speakers through linguistic divergence.)
Lots of Laughter Particles
While Giles’ theory refers primarily to in-person communication, more recently, researchers have applied similar principles to digital communication, such as email and text messaging. These new mediums bring new types of linguistic cues that we can converge on (e.g., the use of intentional misspellings). And while we’ll adapt certain aspects of our digital writing to match our email or text partners, there are other aspects that we won’t.
In her book, The Pragmatics of Text Messaging: Making Meaning in Messages (2018), Linguist Michelle McSweeney analyzed the text messages of fifty 18–21 year olds for linguistic convergence. McSweeney found that while people did tend to adopt the abbreviation, acronym, and emoji usage of those they frequently texted, they maintained their own distinct punctuation usage and “laughter particles” (the way people laugh via text, e.g., lmao or haha).
For example, if one of your friends uses the 💅 emoji a lot, you’re more likely to use it in response—even if you don’t initiate its usage yourself. On the other hand, if your friends use tons of dashes in their texts (I’m guilty of this myself), you’re less likely to begin mimicking their punctuation patterns and will stick to your normal usage. If they laugh via text, you are more likely to laugh in response, but it’s unlikely that you’ll mimic the style/nature of their laughter (e.g., if you’re partial to haha, that won’t change just because your friend uses hehe).
McSweeney suggests that this distinction may be because emojis are often used to convey the affect/emotion of a message, and abbreviations and acronyms can contribute to social politeness, all of which can help decrease the social distance between texters. Punctuation, however, is used to clarify the texter’s intention in writing a message. If you mimic someone’s excessive exclamation points, it may not clarify your meaning at all. Laughter is slightly different, because the way we laugh via text is an essential part of our texting identity, just as our laughter in face-to-face conversations is also unique to our spoken identity. You might laugh when someone you’re speaking to is laughing, but you would not imitate the way they laugh—not unless you wanted to mock them.
We are also more likely to converge on these texting cues (or textisms) when we want to convey that we like or approve of someone. Researchers Aubrie Adams, Jai Miles, Norah E. Dunbar, and Howard Giles (2018) collected text message conversations from nearly 300 American college students, asking each student to rank how much they liked the person they had texted on a 7-point scale. They found that the students who liked their texting partner more converged on more textisms, such as capitalization and emoticon usage.
Minimizing Social Differences📱💬🆒😎
It makes sense that we’d want to minimize the social differences between ourselves and the people we like, but what other factors influence when we converge in our texts? Researchers have provided some conjectures (power dynamics, gender, age, etc.), but the study of the interpersonal dimensions of textisms is still in its infancy.
What’s fascinating about all this is that we make these subtle changes to our texting without even thinking about it. There are many books and videos and articles about how to connect with people: how to make friends, how to network effectively, how to convey confidence. But we can also work toward these social goals through something as small as mimicking the other person’s emoji usage or using their favored text abbreviation. And we often do it naturally.
So, if, in the future, you notice yourself typing ty when you usually spell out thank you, or if you wonder why your very down-to-earth friend has suddenly started to use the sparkle ✨ emoji you love so much, you’ll know you’re witnessing one of the subtle things we do to improve our social interactions every day.
The scene: You’re sitting on the sofa, cup of tea by your side, ready to crack open a brand new sci-fi novel. This tale promises to be full of exciting scientific advancements, great world-building, and a fast-paced plot. You open to the first page and begin to read…only to be pulled out of the narrative multiple times by clumsy pseudo-scientific jargon. And lots of it.
Lately, I’ve been devouring Cixin Liu’s sci-fi trilogy, Remembrance of Earth’s Past, and I’ve been consistently impressed by its seamless integration of novel words and terminology for new scientific concepts. Unlike some other sci-fi novels I’ve read (*cough* Hyperion *cough*), the author introduces new concepts without ever seeming forced or jargon-y. However, this is not always the case.
The proliferation of jargon in much of sci-fi makes sense: science fiction often deals with new technology, advancements in science, and alien life, and new concepts and ideas require new vocabulary. Yet, why is it that some books and movies introduce new words seamlessly, while other sci-fi terminology sticks out awkwardly from the rest of the text?
From Imagination to Reality
The English language has received many new words courtesy of science fiction, and some have become such a normal part of everyday speech that we hardly think about them at all. For example, the word robot was first coined by author Karel Čapek in 1921, referring to artificial humans; the term was based on the Czech word, robota, for “forced feudal labor.” Isaac Asimov later adapted this term and named the discipline of robotics. Sci-fi also gave us words like astronaut and genetic engineering.
So how do sci-fi creators come up with these new words, and what determines whether they work or don’t? Let’s first look at new words more broadly. In one of his books on the history of the English language, Bill Bryson claims that new words emerge in five major ways:
- Error (mistakes in communicating or transcribing words)
- Adoption (words borrowed from other languages)
- Creation (new words people create on purpose, hoping that they will be adopted)
- Change in context (words whose meaning changes over time as the context changes)
- Addition or subtraction (words derived from combining or modifying existing words).
Bryson is talking about language change in general here—the gradual evolution of words and usage over time—not authors creating new words for their fictional worlds. However, I think there’s some definite overlap.
New words in sci-fi often fall into the creation or addition/subtraction categories, though sometimes they are formed by using a common term and giving it a new meaning in the context of the story. Some sci-fi terms are created as totally new words, or protologisms, like Ursula K. Le Guin’s ansible. Many authors intentionally modify words from other languages to form new terms, like Frank Herbert’s Kwisatz Haderach or Orson Scott Card’s Pequeninos.
And we’ve all seen addition and subtraction in action: terraform, warp drive, hyperspace, force field. Common trends include creating portmanteaus (holoprojector, Newspeak), adding “on” to the end of related words to form the names of new particles (tachyon, philosophon), and adding “um” to create fictional elements (adamantium, unobtanium).
Other authors take everyday words and imbue them with new meaning; usually you can see these words’ connection to their original definition, as if the authors tried to mimic the natural shift of words’ meaning over time in new contexts. Cixin Liu’s use of hibernation in his aforementioned sci-fi series is a great example of this. We all know what hibernation means, but in his books, it refers specifically to the process of cryogenically freezing humans’ bodies so they can be awoken decades or even centuries in the future, as if no time had passed. The connection to bears’ hibernation is clear, and this term feels believable in the futuristic Earth he’s created.
Complicated Science Stuff
So, when does sci-fi lingo go awry? Personally, I notice this jargon most when it’s overused or when the terminology is overly complicated, where the author is clearly trying to sound complex and scientific without having to explain any actual science.
As the xkcd comic at the beginning of this post jokes, often new sci-fi words are just stand ins for terms that already exist…but futuristic and awesomer. When we want to show a computer process or scientific concept in a futuristic society, we often create big, complex-sounding words that are meant to dazzle rather than communicate.
Astrophysicist Katie Mack notes that this may feel disingenuous since most of the real words we have for “space stuff” today are actually very simple terms, like black hole and big bang. This is in marked contrast to the jargon used in sci-fi movies and books, with polysyllabic and complicated-sounding words signaling that they represent Super Complex Science Things:
“If you watch something like Star Trek, there’s always words like, you know, the inertial compensators, and you get these really multisyllabic constructions, and that’s how you know that you’re not supposed to understand it, and you’re supposed to file that away as ‘that’s a complicated thing.’”
In these instances, you’re supposed to be impressed by the big words, otherwise known as technobabble, or technical-sounding but meaningless words. This is so common, TV Tropes has a full page devoted to both scientific technobabble and sci-fi name buzzwords, and there’s even a technobabble generator you can use if you’re stuck for a nonsensical but sciencey-sounding term for your next novel or screenplay. (Speaking of which, it’s time to realign the automatic plasma flow inhibitor.) The TV show, Doctor Who, pokes fun at this as well:
The Doctor: Looks like a spatio-temporal hyperlink.
Mickey: What’s that?
The Doctor: No idea, just made it up. Didn’t want to say “magic door.”
The distinction between technobabble and innovative new words is not always super clear. But many readers can feel when a term is forced or used as a stand in for science that the author doesn’t care to explain in plain language. We can intuit when a writer is just trying to add space and technology flavor to their narrative, like adding too much pepper to an otherwise bland soup.
This discussion only scratches the surface of the world of sci-fi terminology. For example, phonetics also plays a huge role in how “real” a word feels to us. Certain sounds can feel soft or hard, round or spiky, harsh or smooth to us, and when a fictional word’s sounds don’t match up with what it describes, it can feel off (even though the words we use every day often don’t match sounds to meanings in this way). And there’s a ton of commentary on constructed languages in sci-fi and fantasy, or conlangs, and what makes them believable and suitably alien.
Want to learn more? These podcast episodes are a good place to start:
- The Allusionist: “Technobabble“
- Imaginary Words: “Technobabble“
- Very Bad Words: “Constructed curses in sci fi and fantasy“
- Lingthusiasm: “What words sound spiky across languages?“
However they’re formed, fictional words are fascinating: they can inspire loyal usage or mocking derision, and they have the potential to become “real” words if people like and use them enough. Science fiction authors are constantly creating new worlds, or at least new versions of this world, and making up words is its own kind of world creation too. I may mock the hegemonic tri-phase neurocopters of sci-fi nightmares, but if sci-fi authors didn’t go out on a mid-limb and create new terminology, no one would have ever invented speakers for the dead or doublethink or replicant. And that would be a shame.
“I want you to think about the suggestion that what the President says is not the policy of the United States.” – Bob Menendez
On Wednesday, July 25, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During the hearing, Republican and Democratic senators questioned Pompeo about Trump’s comments after Helsinki, expressing doubt about the White House’s strategy and requesting information on the secret conversation between Trump and Putin. Just over a week prior, Trump and Putin met in a private one-on-one meeting in Finland, in which many hoped Trump would finally hold Putin accountable for Russian interference in the 2016 election. After the meeting, Trump did not publicly condemn Russian interference, though U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed that Russia did meddle in our election. When a reporter explicitly asked Trump who he believed—his own intelligence officials or Putin—Trump refused to answer definitively one way or the other. “I will say this,” Trump said. “I don’t see any reason why it would be [Russia].
This, as one might imagine, is a troubling statement for any president to make, and has led many to wonder just what promises and concessions Trump made to Putin during their closed-door meeting. Has U.S. policy toward Russia changed? The President’s deferential comments have led many to wonder. Because, as the President of the United States, what Trump promises to a foreign leader has the force of action; his words help define and clarify U.S. policy to the world. Or do they?
This seems to be in doubt, because when senators asked Mike Pompeo what the President said during his one-on-one meeting, the Secretary of State did not tell them what promises Trump did or did not make. Instead, Pompeo repeatedly evaded the question by listing off current U.S. policy, implying that senators should look the official policy decisions of the Administration rather than the President’s words. As if these were two separate things.
At the end of the 3-hour-long hearing, Senator Bob Menendez made the above comment, calling Pompeo out on his refusal to admit that the President’s statements are U.S. policy. Pompeo immediately backtracked, claiming he has misspoke, but the question remains: Is what the President says U.S. policy? Or is this true only in certain circumstances? If so, then how, as Senator Chris Murphy asked, “do I know the difference between a presidential statement that is not a policy and a statement that is?”
Historically, U.S. presidents have been pretty careful to stay within the lines of official U.S. policy when they speak. Reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis noted, “They understand that…any little gradation…from what the policy is is gonna be seized upon by the public, by Congress, by allies around the world as a big deal…” U.S. presidents’ words, their promises and commitments and condemnations, can have the weight of action on behalf of the country. When a president declares war, those words constitute the declaration. They make things happen.
Doing Things with Words
There’s a term for this type of performative speech in linguistics: speech acts. Speech acts are utterances that perform an action. They do not just describe an action; the act of speaking performs the action. One, for example, can resign from a position by saying “I would like to resign” or “I am turning in my two weeks’ notice.” When you say this, your statement itself constitutes the act of resigning. The same is true when you make a promise, take a bet, or offer an apology.
Of course, you can do so jokingly or without the proper authority to follow through; however, in the right circumstances, to say that you promise is to perform the act of promising.
Philosopher J.L. Austin first introduced the idea of speech acts, which he called performative utterances, in the 1950s. At the time, many philosophers saw language as primarily descriptive or declarative. Statements, in this popular view, served to state a fact or describe something, whether truthfully or falsely. In How to Do Things with Words, a collection of Austin’s lectures, Austin debunks this narrow conception of language, providing examples of utterances that do much more than describe reality: for example, naming a ship or taking a marriage vow:
“In these examples it seems clear that to utter the sentence (in, of course, the appropriate circumstances) is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it.”
We do this every day, but it’s kind of an amazing thing. As linguist John Searle puts it, language not only gives us the power to “communicate complex thoughts, but…to create a kind of reality…We have a capacity to create a reality by representing that reality as existing.” An executive, for example, can adjourn a meeting by saying it’s adjourned. In these instances, we are shaping the world around us with our words, albeit often in very small ways. The words we say have power not just to describe our experience or desires, but to make things happen.
Which brings us back to the question underpinning Mike Pompeo’s hearing this week: Do the President’s declarations and promises actually make things happen? Or are his words empty of performative force?
Who Calls the Ball?
Austin notes that for a speech act to take place, you must not only say the words—you must also have the authority and be in the correct circumstances to perform the action. This is common sense. If I try to declare sanctions on Russia, no one will take me seriously. I do not have the authority to perform that speech act; my words alone are not sufficient to make it so.
This is the crux of the debate over Trump’s words vs. policy. Either the time and place are right and Trump has the authority to declare U.S. policy—make promises, declare sanctions, condemn foreign interference in our elections—or the correct circumstances or authority are lacking, and his words do not have the force of action.
It seems obvious that Trump does, indeed, have the authority to make promises and other speech acts on behalf of the United States, at least in certain circumstances. When pressed, Mike Pompeo was quick to affirm that “the president calls the ball. His statements are, in fact, policy.” And most Americans assume that the President has the authority to speak on behalf of the United States, to take action through his speech, in the appropriate circumstances.
Non-Americans think so too. As Senator Chris Murphy said during Pompeo’s hearing, “We focus on words from the President because our allies and our adversaries listen to those words and they calibrate their actions based upon those words.”
It seems clear that Trump, as president, has the authority to act on behalf of the nation. But in what circumstances? Normally, one would think that a meeting with a foreign leader, like Vladimir Putin, or a press conference directly afterward would count as appropriate circumstances. At the Helsinki Summit, Trump represented the United States in an official capacity to a foreign nation. Surely, his words in this setting would have performative force. Yet when asked if the United States’ stances on Russia had changed, based on the President’s deferential language toward Putin and failure to condemn his actions, Pompeo just referenced exciting U.S. policy, implying that whatever the President said would not affect policy. If these circumstances are not sufficient for the President to enact U.S. policy, what are?
This Administration has not provided a clear answer to this question. White House representatives imply that the rules have changed by constantly adjusting, reinterpreting, and deflecting comments about what the President says. What he says and what the Administration does are not the same, though his staff pretend that they are. This is problematic: Without a clear set of rules, how can we (or our allies or adversaries) know when the President’s words have the force of action? And how do we know when they are just hot air?
In his hearing, Mike Pompeo didn’t provide satisfactory guidelines for when the President has the authority to make declarations, promises, or other speech acts on behalf of the United States. The President clearly thinks that he does, yet experience suggests otherwise. The White House continually walks back what he says, and so does Trump himself. So, while Pompeo claims that the President “calls the ball,” we know that saying this doesn’t necessarily make it so.
The Supreme Court was busy in June, ruling on several highly-anticipated and controversial cases. In the last month, the Supreme Court has taken stances (though sometimes failing to set a precedent) on the infamous same-sex wedding cake case, partisan gerrymandering, Trump’s travel ban, and labor unions’ rights, all of which garnered intense public scrutiny. … And then Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, and hell really broke loose.
Kennedy is a conservative, but he is widely considered to be a swing vote on a politically split Supreme Court; while many of his votes align with his fellow conservative justices, he also voted to legalize same-sex marriage and protect Coloradans from discrimination based on sexual orientation. When he retires in July, Trump gets to appoint his successor. And that is a fact that people get very animated about (myself included).
I’m not going to comment on Kennedy’s retirement because that’s outside the purview of this blog, and everything I would have said has been said already anyway. However, I have heard so many impassioned speeches and strong words over the last few weeks that it got me wondering—people have used a lot of strong language about the Supreme Court, but what about inside it? This is such a sacred and respected institution; in high-stakes and high-emotion cases, does strong language ever make its way into oral arguments?
Has anyone ever even used a swear word in the Supreme Court?
Yes. Yes, they have.
Fair warning, there’s foul language ahead.
I Swear Before the Court
If we’re going to talk about taboo language in the Supreme Court, fuck is a good place to start. In fact, this word has only ever been used before the Supreme Court once: in 1971’s Cohen v. California. The State of California accused Paul Cohen of violating California law that prohibits “maliciously and willfully disturb[ing] the peace” through “offensive conduct” because Cohen wore a jacket in a Los Angeles courthouse corridor protesting the Vietnam War. The jacket said “Fuck the Draft.”
When this case made it to the Supreme Court, the justices were clearly wary of the offensive word that was the central point of the case. At the beginning of the oral argument, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger told Cohen’s lawyer,
“I might suggest to you that, as in most cases, the Court’s thoroughly familiar with the factual setting of this case, and it won’t be necessary for you, I’m sure, to dwell on the facts.”
Berger’s admonition that it wouldn’t be necessary to dwell on the facts clearly implied that no one should utter the four-letter word in the court. Cohen’s lawyer, Melville Nimmer, used the word anyway. To avoid using the word would, in a sense, implicitly acknowledge that it was offensive—at least too offensive to say in front of the court. To fail to say the word was to give it power. Cohen said “Fuck the Draft” and won his case. In the opinion of University of Chicago Professor Geoffrey Stone (and many others), Nimmer won the argument the moment he said the F-word.
That’s the only time someone used the F-word in a Supreme Court oral argument, but there have been several other cases where its absence was notable: in 1978, 2008, and 2011 cases that considered the legality of censoring swear words on the air.
The FCC Battles for Censorship
In 1978, the Supreme Court considered Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation. A New York radio station had aired George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” monologue—a comedic bit about all the words that you cannot say on the air, including fuck and shit. The FCC claimed the right to censor these words after a man complained that he heard the explicit radio broadcast in the car with his young son. In the oral arguments, no one said the words in question, and the FCC won that case.
Then, in 2008, the Supreme Court considered Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, Inc., in which the FCC sought, again, to enforce their right to ban even the fleeting utterance of F- and S-words on the air. The background: During Fox’s Billboard Music Awards in 2002 and 2003, Cher and Nicole Richie used expletives on the air, and the FCC issued notices of liability to Fox. Previously, the FCC had allowed fleeting uses of these words, but they changed their rules. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the FCC’s liability order was “arbitrary and capricious,” and the case made its way to the Supreme Court.
During his oral argument, the lawyer representing Fox, Carter G. Phillips, did not use either of the words in question (despite claiming that he would beforehand). The Supreme Court decided in favor of the FCC.
Did the lawyer’s failure to use these words contribute to the stigma surrounding them? Did it give credence to the FCC’s claim that these words constitute “indecent material,” which should be censored? It’s hard to say, but lots of commentators think so.
However, when the FCC made its way to the Supreme Court again in 2011, in a continuation of the 2008 case against Fox, the court ruled differently (even though, again, no one said the words). In Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, Inc. (2011), the court debated the constitutionality of the FCC’s vague criteria for regulating indecent speech, specifically looking at the FCC’s liability orders against fleeting expletives on Fox awards shows and partial nudity on ABC’s “NYPD Blue.” In this case, unlike the 2008 case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of ABC and Fox, because “the Commission failed to give Fox or ABC fair notice prior to the broadcasts in question that fleeting expletives and momentary nudity could be found actionably indecent.”
However, the court also failed to set a precedent about censorship and First Amendment rights; the case was a victory for the broadcasters, but one without far-reaching implications. And despite again discussing the F-word’s use on TV, no one mentioned the word before the Supreme Court.
One Man’s Vulgarity Is Another’s Lyric
In the Supreme Court’s opinion on Cohen v. California, Justice John M. Harlan wrote, “while the particular four-letter word being litigated here is perhaps more distasteful than most others of its genre, it is nevertheless often true that one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.” The whole opinion is a pretty powerful defense of free speech, even when it offends:
“How is one to distinguish this from any other offensive word? Surely the State has no right to cleanse public debate to the point where it is grammatically palatable to the most squeamish among us. Yet no readily ascertainable general principle exists for stopping short of that result were we to affirm the judgment below. … Finally, and in the same vein, we cannot indulge the facile assumption that one can forbid particular words without also running a substantial risk of suppressing ideas in the process.”
In other words, to allow the government or regulatory bodies to censor certain four-letter words is to risk allowing them to censor the ideas those words express. If you’re merely concerned about obscenity (a slippery concept), where do you draw the line? In her dissent to the Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, Inc. (2008), Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned the Supreme Court that words “unpalatable to some may be commonplace for others.”
I quote at length from these opinions to make a point. Words and ideas are not two separate beasts. And that’s not because I think that language dictates our perception of reality, but because the words we choose have emotional weight. Our words have both denotative and connotative meanings; they contribute to tone as much as to comprehension. And so-called vulgar language can have its own power.
For example, studies have shown that swearing actually activates a different part of the brain than everyday speech, and that cursing can have a slight pain-relieving effect. (The podcast Very Bad Words has an excellent episode about this.)
It’s unclear if the 1978 and 2008 cases above would have gone differently if the defendants had used the F-word before the court. But the fact that they didn’t shows that words have power—the power to offend, to shock, to move. Justice Harlan’s opinion in Cohen v. California suggests that words do not only communicate ideas, but “otherwise inexpressible emotions” as well, and this emotive force ought to be protected as an expression of free speech.
You can debate whether or when it’s appropriate to use so-called obscene words, but they have a forcefulness that other language does not. This forcefulness comes from the very fact that they are taboo, and using strong language can make a statement that a subject is serious enough to warrant offending people. Like protesting the draft or asserting your right to free speech even when it’s explicit or vulgar.
It will be interesting to see more censorship cases come to the Supreme Court in the future. Maybe the lawyers in these cases will decide that the Supreme Court is still a place where honoring these taboos matter and refrain from swearing. Maybe they’ll judge that the respect due to the head of the United States’ Judicial Branch warrants a more restrained form of speech than everyday life or even lower courts.
Or maybe they’ll say fuck this shit.
One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric, after all.
“Emoji are ruining the English language because young people rely on them to communicate, research by Google has found.” — Camilla Turner, The Telegraph
I have heard so many variations of this claim (about emojis, about SMS abbreviations, about slang) that it’s become a cliché. The quotation above, from a recent Telegraph article, is particularly misleading because it claims that Google research has found that emojis are ruining English, when in the very next sentence, Turner clarifies:
“Over a third of British adults believe that emoji are to blame for the deterioration of the English language, according to new research” (emphasis mine)
Um. Sorry, Camilla. A YouTube study that finds adults believe that emojis are ruining English is way different from a study concluding that emojis actually are ruining English. Popular belief does not necessarily equal fact. Yet this belief is very common.
I won’t go point by point through this article, which is atrocious (but check out this sassy Chronicle takedown if you’re interested). It includes gems such as blaming young people for supposedly destroying language (again) and claiming, via Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education Chris McGovern, that
“We are moving in a direction of cartoon and picture language, which inevitably will affect literacy. Children will always follow the path of least resistance.
Emoji convey a message, but this breeds laziness. If people think ‘all I need to do is send a picture’, this dilutes language and expression.”
This quotation demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how language changes over time and totally ignores the complex grammatical and conversational rules that people follow when using emojis.
But are emojis (or slang, or the youth) a threat to English? Well, to believe that emojis are ruining English, you have to first assume that English can be “ruined.” You have to assume that English is threatened by certain kinds of change—by the introduction of new words, phrases, grammatical structures, and/or other linguistic innovations that are, for some reason, wrong.
Can English Be Ruined?
People have lamented the decline of language for centuries, usually prompted by some new development or change that later becomes commonplace. This goes back to Socrates, who allegedly decried the advent of writing, as recorded in Plato’s Phaedrus:
“…for this discovery [writing] of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
Ouch. And yet, despite Socrates’ fears that the written word would prove to be disastrous for memory and knowledge, no one today claims that writing is ruining language.
Complaints about language’s imminent destruction continued after Socrates. As Robert Lane Greene notes, Cicero decried the abysmal Latin he heard spoken in the 1st century B.C.; in the 1700s, Jonathan Swift complained that the “daily Corruptions” in “imperfect” English far outweighed “its daily Improvements”; and in the 1900s, George Orwell claimed that English was “in a bad way.”
The Language It Is A-Changin’
All of these people (and many more) saw a threat to their language in the form of new changes. And yet many of those who wish to go back to the “good old days” of Right and Proper English want to go back to a version of English that the generations before them saw as an abomination. So, what is the standard for Good English? If we assume that English is getting worse over time, then should we look even further to the past? Because one thousand years ago, English looked like this:
Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. (Beowulf)
Unless you’ve studied Old English, that’s pretty incomprehensible. What if we go back a little over 600 years instead?
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;… (Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales)
With some effort, you can probably understand this passage, but it’s still a far cry from the English that people like Camilla Turner are defending. Spoiler alert: there is no point at which English reached perfection, no point at which Good English began going downhill. English has always been changing, and it hasn’t gotten better or worse. It’s just different.
The perfect English which people reminisce about is nothing more than the English they, personally, are used to. Slang and linguistic innovations aren’t ruining English; they’re just introducing change, and change is uncomfortable to people who are used to things being a certain way. But the way things were done in the past isn’t inherently good or correct. For example, you may have been taught in school not to split infinitives (to know, to walk, etc.). Did you know that this grammatical trend started because you can’t split infinitives in Latin, and people in the 17th century thought English ought to be more like Latin? Yeah.
The fact is, one of the only constants in any language is change. All languages change (albeit slowly) over time. They adapt to the changing needs of their users; pronunciations shift; people borrow words from other languages and modify words from their own. Even within one language, like English, there are tons of dialects that constantly interact and change.
As it happens, a lot of this change comes from young people, who introduce new words and constructions that may or may not stick.
People who critique new language use claim that young people are using words incorrectly (i.e., differently than I was taught to use them), and therefore, their generation must be lazy or incompetent. They just need to learn the proper way to use words (i.e., the way I use words). Linguistic novelty can be perceived as scary or wrong because it’s less tied to tradition, but it’s not inherently bad. It’s just new. And it’s normal.
Internet Language Isn’t Lazy
When people like Camilla Turner claim that emojis are ruining language, they often assume that these pictorial characters are evidence of linguistic laziness. But there are complex conversational rules at play when people use emojis (or other texting lingo), and kids growing up with texting and social media today have to learn to navigate this unwritten and constantly changing linguistic landscape.
If you’re doubtful, think of someone you know who doesn’t text or use social media much, someone whose texts or Facebook statuses seem a bit off, like they don’t entirely understand how people write on these platforms. Maybe someone who texts you a solitary “Ok.” and doesn’t realize that the shortness of the word and the finality of that period convey a meaning that is very different from “Okay!” or “Kk 😊”
Or, consider lol. While it’s definitely used as an abbreviation for “laugh out loud,” its meaning and usage have greatly expanded. You could use lol to tone down a message that might otherwise be read as hostile, or to convey empathy. As John McWhorter puts it:
“LOL has evolved into something much subtler and sophisticated and is used even when nothing is remotely amusing. Jocelyn texts ‘Where have you been?’ and Annabelle texts back ‘LOL at the library studying for two hours.’ LOL signals basic empathy between texters, easing tension and creating a sense of equality. Instead of having a literal meaning, it does something — conveying an attitude — just like the -ed ending conveys past tense rather than “meaning” anything. LOL, of all things, is grammar.”
In a similar vein, Linguist Gretchen McCulloch has written a series of fascinating articles about the linguistics of internet language, from the grammar of doge to vowel-less abbreviations (srsly, thx) to, you guessed, it emojis. McCulloch argues that emojis are not a language in themselves, but rather a supplement to language.
The best example of this is Emoji Dick. Emoji Dick, as the name suggests, is a crowdsourced translation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick into emojis. Yes, the entire book. It’s a great coffee table book, but one look at the opening line, without context, and you’ll realize that it’s not at all intuitive to go from ☎👨🏻⛵🐋👌🏻 to “Call me Ishmael.” In fact, the book contains a side-by-side English translation, presumably because it would be incomprehensible otherwise.
McCulloch likens emojis to gestures: they are frequently used to convey meaning but as an add-on to the written word, not a replacement for it. Part of the reason it’s so fun to read famous first lines written in emojis is because the translations aren’t obvious. Emojis just don’t cut it as a full language.
The Kids Are Alright
Returning to Camilla Turner’s Telegraph piece, it seems highly unlikely that “We are moving in a direction of cartoon and picture language.” Probably, we’re just adding a new facet to language, a new way for us to convey meaning in text when we don’t have the luxury to speak face to face. And this new change, like the advent of writing or the splitting of infinitives, doesn’t spell doom for English.
Emojis aren’t in danger of usurping language, and they aren’t indicators of laziness either. Emojis can have multiple meanings, and slight variations can convey vastly different messages (there’s a big difference between sending someone a 💕 vs. a ❤).
Many of the young adults that are supposedly ruining language are attuned to these subtleties. Kids today grow up texting. They grow up using emojis and abbreviations and gifs, and they are constantly playing with language every day. They are reading and writing outside of the classroom, and they are using all the tools at their disposal—including emojis—to convey subtle nuances of meaning.
Emojis are not about to destroy a language that’s been around for over a thousand years—they may change it, but change is par for the course. Change is normal, even when it feels weird because we’re not used to it (like the figurative use of literally or the increasing usage of irregardless). So, even if you don’t like or use emojis yourself, rest assured that 👶💬😀👍.
The cause behind this hubbub is a major European privacy law that’s been two years in the making. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which went into effect on May 25, 2018, ensures certain data privacy rights for individuals within the EU, such as the right to obtain information about how companies process your personal data, the right to request access to this data so that you can transfer it to another service, and the right to object to companies using your data for certain purposes. Companies also have an obligation to clearly articulate their privacy policies in a way that their users can understand—so, no obscuring important privacy info in a sea of legalese.
The law passed two years ago—well before the Cambridge Analytica revelation, or the more recent scrutiny of Facebook’s and Google’s role in Ireland’s abortion referendum (many saw this vote as a test case of how well these companies could prevent foreign parties from targeting key demographics on social media to influence elections). However, the GDPR gave companies two years to comply—a deadline that just passed.
Since many of the companies affected by the law have an international reach that extends beyond the EU, a lot of North Americans have been getting privacy emails too. Some organizations have applied the more stringent EU standards to their North American users as well, while others have established separate data privacy rules for different parts of the world. And now these companies need to clearly inform users of their new policies. Hence, the heap of privacy emails in your inbox.
Words, Words, Words
Unsurprisingly, many of these statements echo the word choice of the EU’s official communications on the GDPR, which the European Commission claims “will strengthen the protection of the individual’s right to personal data protection, reflecting the nature of data protection as a fundamental right for the European Union.” The goal is for people to “have more control over their personal data.”
Pattern One: Choices and Control
Half of the twenty emails emphasized users’ control over their data, and just as many used words like choices and options and highlighted users’ ability to manage their information. The overall message was that each company wants to give you choice, or power over your data—a strong message when many of us feel a bit overwhelmed and powerless where our online personal information is concerned.
Twitter’s word choice was particularly evocative, claiming that they want to empower users, who should have “meaningful control over” their data and its use. “You have the final say about whether and how we process your personal data.”
This last quote, I should note, came right after Twitter said that if you don’t like their data privacy rules, you’re welcome to deactivate your account. So, some of the power and control these companies allegedly give you comes from the option to disengage.
Pattern Two: Totally Transparent
The messages also relied heavily on words like transparency and clarity, with many explicitly stating that their policy updates are merely to help users better understand their existing policies, to provide details and make policies more specific (careful not to imply that their previous data policies may have infringed on users’ rights). This language suggests that these changes are not substantive (whether or not that’s actually true), while also giving off the impression that these companies care that you comprehend exactly what you’re signing up for. Google’s email is a prime example:
“Nothing is changing about your current settings or how your information is processed. Rather, we’ve improved the way we describe our practices and how we explain the options you have to update, manage, export, and delete your data.”
Google was clear that they improved the way they describe their practices, not the practices themselves.
Given that these data privacy changes were prompted by the GDPR, and one of the GDPR’s main goals is increased transparency, it’s interesting that only thirteen of the twenty privacy notices I read mentioned any kind of privacy law as an impetus for their changes (and four of these kept the reference vague, not mentioning the GDPR specifically). Admittedly, these emails are a small and not necessarily representative sample, but Facebook was one of the six that failed to mention any legal reason for their policy changes. (Facebook did, however, emphasize users’ rights and the importance of their control over their choices.)
Pattern Three: Keeping It Personal
The final pattern I noticed is that almost all these messages were super personal—evoking feelings of friendship, trust, or community and using a lot of first- and second-person personal pronouns (we, our, us, you, your). Pronoun usage may not seem that important, but peppering your writing with pronouns that include the reader can help create a personal, conversational tone that inspires trust: Our company cares about you and your data privacy and your choices, and we want you to take control of your data. You can trust us.
Beyond the pronouns, many companies struck a genial tone, using their word choice to establish trust and a sense of community between themselves and you, their user. Twitter thanked users for their “trust” (implying that it had already been given), and Airbnb thanked each user “for being a member of our global community.” Similarly, Uber talked about the “lasting relationship” it has with its customers:
“We understand that protecting your privacy is essential to building a lasting relationship with you, and we’re committed to doing the right thing with the information you’ve entrusted to us.”
Overall, many of these companies implied that their privacy changes have an ethical impetus, not just a legal one. Whether this is just posturing or not, these privacy messages have been crafted to evoke good feelings about the company and its intentions toward you—and and to persuade you to trust that you don’t need to worry about what they’re doing with your data.
Privacy Rights, Privacy Wrongs
With all this talk of data privacy rights and companies’ ethical and legal obligations to respect them, it’s worth asking, what rights should we have when we freely give our data to companies online? A right is “something to which one has a just claim” or “may properly claim as due.” In general, a right connotes something deserved, whether legally or ethically. However, we don’t have clearly defined rights for a lot of what goes on in the internet age.
When I was younger, I remember talking to my dad, who is an accountant, about tax laws governing “tangible personal property” and how many state tax laws hadn’t been updated to explicitly account for digital products like software. (You could theoretically land in a situation where, in certain states, software delivered on a physical disc would be subject to tax as tangible property, while the same software delivered through the internet would not—because the latter wasn’t tangible.) It strikes me that data privacy is another area where the law hasn’t quite caught up to the technology, and where we need to continue to weigh the words we use as new standards take shape. The GDPR is the European Union’s attempt to define a standard for data privacy rights; however, it is limited geographically, and how effective it is remains to be seen. The conversation about data privacy rights and how we define them is just beginning.
On May 5, 2018, Sarah Huckabee Sanders posted a tweet calling any feminist Democrat who did not support Gina Haspel’s CIA nomination a “total hypocrite.” In response, a popular Twitter account quote tweeted Sanders, adding a definition of the word “hypocrite” that was clearly not directed at Democrats.
Now, you may think that was a sick burn or a little out of line, depending on your political affiliations and feelings toward the Trump White House. But regardless of your personal feelings, you’d likely be surprised by the tweeter:
As of late, the popular online dictionary has been branching out beyond definitions, words of the day, and quizzes—to political and social commentary. And they’ve been doing so with a unique lexical twist.
Dictionary.com has mastered the art of the double entendre, passive aggressively quote tweeting politicians and celebrities with dictionary entries that can be read as both a definition of a word and savage commentary on the original tweeter. They’ve mocked everyone from Sarah Sanders to DJ Khaled to Mike Pence to Donald Trump:
And these examples are just from the last week. Internet writers and tweeters have been praising Dictionary.com left and right, with a clear tone of surprise. “Even the Dictionary Is Roasting Trump…” “Even Dictionary.com weighed in with a hot take…”
“Even the dictionary.” These three words convey a lot of assumptions about what dictionaries are and what they typically do. They imply that the dictionary’s involvement in these controversial issues is unusual, atypical, noteworthy. Even the articles that do not employ this phrase make it clear that Dictionary.com’s tweets are out of the norm. For example, after Dictionary.com tweeted that Mike Pence was a “sycophant,” The Washington Post noted that this joke comes “from an unlikely source,” and Bustle claimed that, “If there’s any warning sign for a politician, it’s when the dictionary starts dunking on you.” For its part, Dictionary.com has not shied away from its newfound notoriety, actively embracing it.
So, why does this feel so unusual, and is that a bad thing?
The Dictionary as Authority
Dictionaries exist in an interesting position in American culture: they have the reputation of being objective catalogues of language as it is used, free from bias and politics and linguistic prejudices—after all, they will even include much-abused words likes “irregardless” if they are used frequently enough and documented in print. Dictionaries are also perceived as trusted authorities on language. And very few people think about who writes them. To most, dictionaries just Exist.
Who does write the dictionary? And can dictionaries really be objective authorities? These aren’t questions we typically ask as we search Dictionary.com to learn a ten-cent vocabulary word or settle a spelling dispute by checking the OED. But as technology and reading habits are changing, so are dictionaries. In the age of the internet, dictionaries are shifting online, taking on new roles. So, it’s worth asking, what is the purpose of a dictionary?
A common misconception about dictionaries is that they are gatekeepers of “correct” or “proper” English. Just ask any freshman composition student who begins his or her research paper by referencing Merriam-Webster.
This desire for an objective and decisive authority on English has a long history. Back in the 17th century, popular English authors like Daniel Defoe and John Dryden submitted proposals to establish an Academy of English—an institution that would set clear standards for the English language and regulate usage. In the 19th century, many Americans like John Adams and William S. Cardell followed suit, advocating for and institution that would “settle varying orthography; determine the use of doubtful words and phrases; and … form and maintain, as far as practicable, an English standard of writing and pronunciation, correct, fixed, and uniform, throughout our extensive territory.”
Thankfully, such an academy never came to be, but some of the earliest dictionary writers also hung onto this idea of dictionary as the authority on “right” language. In the preface to his A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson stated his intention that his dictionary would help rein in the unruly English language: “every language has likewise its improprieties and absurdities, which it is the duty of the lexicographer to correct or proscribe.” (The entire preface is fun reading, by the way.)
Despite what Johnson believed about dictionaries, their role has shifted significantly in the intervening centuries. Today, most lexicographers claim that dictionaries do not aim to prescribe language usage at all; rather, their goal is to describe how language is used in real life by real people—even if it’s messy and constantly changing.
As former Merriam-Webster Editor Kory Stamper writes in her recent book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries,
“Many people…believe that the dictionary is some great guardian of the English language…Words that have made it into the dictionary are Official with a capital O, sanctioned, part of Real and Proper English. … This is commonly called ‘prescriptivism,’ and it is unfortunately not how dictionaries work. … We are just observers, and the goal is to describe, as accurately as possible, as much of the language as we can. This approach is ‘descriptivism,’ and it is the philosophical basis for almost all modern dictionaries.” (p. 35)
Many people still see dictionaries as objective authorities, however, somehow set apart from the day-to-day usage of English, recording the language from afar. If you have this mindset, you probably don’t talk back to the dictionary, and it certainly doesn’t talk back to you.
The Internet Age
Yet, times are changing as technology evolves, and the internet has changed the way many people interact with dictionaries:
“People now pay with their eyes, not with their wallets, which means that online dictionary that runs ads need to keep eyeballs on its pages longer. The craft of writing a good definition isn’t as important in the click economy: what is important is being agile enough to do what it takes to get to the top of an Internet search results page.” (Kory Stamper, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, p. 259)
The same tactics that worked for the print dictionaries of the past will not work for dictionaries that exist online now. Dictionaries’ ability to stay divorced from the day to day kerfuffles of politics, pop culture, and world events is eroding quickly. They need to stay relevant, stay at the top of people’s news feeds, get more clicks to generate ad revenue. So, it’s not surprising that dictionaries are becoming much more interactive. Stamper notes that “as dictionaries have moved online, lexicographers have developed a direct connection with users that they’ve never had before” (p. 232). Social media spaces are inherently dynamic. People can communicate with the dictionary (or, rather, those on its staff) like never before—and the dictionary’s staff can talk back in real time.
So, is this change a bad thing? Maybe it’s good to move away from a culture where we think of dictionaries as authoritative tomes with no authors and without bias, that simply exist as arbiters of language. Maybe it would be a positive move to think of dictionaries as only one side of an ongoing dialogue about language. A dialogue where the dictionary can comment on current events and people can comment back. Maybe getting involved in the political fray—and being up front about the biases of editors—could do some good. And to Dictionary.com’s credit, they’ve recently posted a video highlighting one of the real people on their staff, entitled “Did You Know Real People Write The Dictionary?”
To adapt to the internet age, many dictionaries have created innovative and useful content—from word quizzes to blog posts on etymology to ESL resources. Maybe this is a sign that dictionaries can use their cultural clout for good purposes: to battle misconceptions about language, to address the unfair assumptions we make about people who use nonstandard dialects, or to make words a little more fun. This may be a pie-in-the-sky best-case scenario, but is the changing status of the dictionary, and the public forum in which we can now talk back to it, a small step in the right direction—a step toward pushing the dictionary off of its cultural pedestal, while still valuing and respecting its usefulness?
Are We Role-ing Over the Line?
Right now, dictionaries exist in a liminal space, where their authority (and bias) isn’t necessarily well-defined. People are starting to notice Dictionary.com’s social commentary, but they’re still surprised by it. It’s easy to laugh at the dictionary’s tweets, because, hey, some of them are really funny. And if you happen to agree with Dictionary.com’s political ideology, you are likely inclined to enjoy their jokes. But what if Dictionary.com’s tweets are not just opinionated, but legitimately misleading, like when they inaccurately described this controversial Bari Weiss article last week? Or what if they make fun of people’s word usage and spelling mistakes, like when they derided Donald Trump’s misuse of “roll” vs. “role”, mocked Ivanka’s unfortunate malapropism, and announced the word of the year was “covfefe” (just kidding, it was “complicit”)?
Calling Donald Trump a traitor or Sarah Sanders a hypocrite is ultimately a matter of opinion, albeit a controversial one. And nearly everyone enjoys chuckling over a good “covfefe” joke. But is there a danger that striving to comment on every trending discussion and hot take will lead to carelessness, at best, or political bias that results in genuinely misleading statements, at worst?
Why does this matter? Because, at the end of the day, people do trust dictionaries. And we (hopefully) don’t want to create a culture where it seems like the record of English language is against people with certain ideologies or speech patterns. Dictionary.com has every right to be opinionated on Twitter, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t thoroughly enjoy their snark. If they want to brand themselves as the activist dictionary, the dictionary that cracks jokes, more power to them. Their tweets are funny. But I think they also risk alienating a lot of people, and I wonder if we are moving toward a space where people not only have their preferred news sources based on political ideology, but also their preferred dictionaries. If more dictionaries follow the example of Dictionary.com, will these reference works begin to skew in one political direction? Will Dictionary.com become the Liberal Dictionary, with others filling in the conservative gap? Or will opening up a two-way dialogue between dictionaries and their readers outweigh any potential downsides?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you love or hate Dictionary.com’s Twitter? What is the role of a dictionary? Are you excited for that role to change? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll be back in two weeks with another blog post about words.
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Loyalty. Leaks. Lies.
Is this the tagline for a romance novel or a news headline about James Comey’s infamous memos?
Welcome to Dialexical, a new blog about words and the way we use them every day. In this blog, I hope to have conversations about the news, media, pop culture, and more, examining the way people, groups, and organizations employ language, how language can influence us, and how discussing it can open up new avenues of analysis and conversation.
And what better way to kick off this blog about words than with James Comey, a man whose words have prompted the public to pore over the precise word choice of our 45th president? A man who named a book after a distinction between two words—honesty and loyalty. A lot of very charged words have been thrown around since the release of Comey’s book and his memos, but today, I’m going to focus in on two of the loudest voices in the conversation: FOX News and CNN.
There’s no great way to examine word usage throughout the entire corpus of CNN’s and FOX News’ Comey coverage—or, at least, not any way that a hobbyist without serious research tools can hope to perform. Luckily for me, both CNN and FOX have jumped on the daily news podcast train, which provides a convenient (though obviously not conclusive or comprehensive) example of each network’s news coverage about Comey in the past few weeks. CNN’s The Daily DC and the FOX News Rundown both conduct deep dives into topical news stories every day, and both released an episode about James Comey after his interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, on April 16 and April 17, respectively.
So, let’s dive in.
Comey Then and Now
One common theme emerged as I listened to these episodes. Both hosts use value-laden words to contrast two versions or perceptions of James Comey: the unbiased political outsider and the man who has come down off his pedestal and into the partisan political fray. Both networks use charged words like morality, truth, lies, and loyalty throughout their Comey episodes; this makes sense, given that Comey’s new book is called A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, and that Comey said Trump was “morally unfit” for office during his ABC interview—a comment that both FOX and CNN quote directly.
On the FOX News Rundown, Dave Anthony and Howie Kurtz use these and other words that evoke morality and ethics—such as halo, upright, values, etc.—more specifically to distinguish between the old Comey and the new Comey. Kurtz calls Comey the “Moralizer in Chief,” explaining that Comey’s attacks on Trump’s orange face and the infamous dossier undercut Comey’s status as a “truth teller.” All of Comey’s low blows have “scratched the halo the media have bestowed upon him.” The image Kurtz paints is an unsullied and pure FBI director who has sacrificed his virtuous status to moralize about and show his disdain for political players.
CNN’s David Chalian also distinguishes between two versions of Comey, but he primarily uses spatial language—Comey was “above” the political fray, but now he is “inside” or “down in” it—and words that evoke a dirty/clean dichotomy. Take the statement below, for example:
“The RNC wants him down in the mud. They want to dirty him up with politics, the to and fro of the daily political conversation, as much as possible. Because if he gets to remain above the fray, that could potentially be more damaging.”
Comey is now “mired in the political fray,” and David Chalian uses the words dirty and mud (repeating the mud metaphor again later in the episode) to describe Comey’s new political involvement. Both podcasts imply that partisanship and politics damage Comey’s credibility, and possibly his ethics too, though FOX’s word choice evokes moral imagery and CNN’s evokes cleanliness.
Nothing but the Facts, Ma’am
Both the FOX News Rundown and The Daily DC frequently use the word truth and variants (truthfulness, truth teller) but often in slightly different contexts. FOX’s Howie Kurtz, for example, connects truth with impartiality and contrasts this with Comey’s low-blow attacks on Trump’s family or scandals:
“His whole career… has been that he was this independent, judicious, upright figure who didn’t show favor to either side. But now…. he talked about Trump’s orange face and his hair and the size of his hands…. He did seem to sort of give voice to a disdain that he has developed for the president that’s completely at odds with the impartiality that he has tried to foster earlier.”
These character attacks undercut Comey’s status as a truth teller because they undermine his impartiality. When the FOX speakers mention facts and objective veracity, it’s usually in contrast to Comey. They ask, “Shouldn’t he stick to the facts and tell his story?” and denounce his mention of the “unverified, unsubstantiated dossier.”
CNN’s David Chalian also connects truth with words evoking investigative objectivity, like “fact pattern” and “evidence,” but he does so to explain Comey’s methodology. Truth relates to the facts relayed in the memos; the facts are not necessarily in opposition to Comey himself. Take the following excerpt, for example, discussing the moment when Comey says Trump asked him to consider letting the Flynn investigation go:
“Comey clearly called that moment evidence of obstruction of justice. He wouldn’t say outright that the president had obstructed justice, but he said he definitely observed what he said is evidence of obstruction of justice.”
Any discussion of Comey would focus on claims of obstruction of justice, but Chalian specifically focuses on “evidence of obstruction of justice”—he uses evidence in this specific context 6 times during the episode. The GOP and Trump, Chalian says, are trying to chip away at Comey’s character, but not his “fact pattern.” Like Kurtz, Chalian also acknowledges that Comey’s truth teller status could be at odds with Comey’s new political involvement: Comey had a “Boy Scout reputation, nothing but the facts ma’am, here’s the truth…and now he is a political player,” says Chalian. Both Chalian and Kurtz imply that Comey’s newfound political involvement has the potential to damage his impartiality and, therefore, his truthfulness. However, Chalian has more reservations than Kurtz: “Simply because he’s down in the mud…it doesn’t mean at all that what he’s telling is untruthful.”
He Who Hesitates
Chalian’s hesitancy to denounce Comey as untruthful manifests itself in a couple of interesting sentence constructions, which emphasize his reluctance:
- “It is compelling to hear Comey’s side of events. I don’t think it is without questioning, his being sort of a political player in this now.”
- “He is not without real questions to be asked of him; there’s no doubt about that”
The first excerpt contains a double negative (which lessens the strength of the statement), a gerund that creates passive voice (“his being…a political player”), and several qualifiers (“I don’t think,” “sort of”). A more natural rendering of this sentence might read: “It is worth questioning Comey’s side of events since he is a political player in this now.” In the second excerpt, Chalian addresses questioning Comey in another roundabout way, again using a double negative to soften his statement: “He is not without real questions to be asked of him.” Compare this to the more natural “There are real questions to ask him” or “There are real questions we should ask him.”
Contrast both of these convoluted sentences to Kurtz’s similar comments in the FOX podcast: “I would press him. I would ask the third and the fourth and the fifth follow up question… As a journalist, I have a lot of questions for Jim Comey. I hope he gets asked some of them.” These are simple, active-voice sentences. There is no hesitancy here.
Presentation and Perception
So, where does this leave us? Both of these podcasts discuss very similar facts, though they focus on some more than others—for example, the FOX episode mentions Hillary Clinton more than twice as often as the CNN podcast (11 times vs. 5 times)—and use different metaphors to describe this political figure. The words we use in public discussions help shape the perceptions we present and consume about the news. Maybe FOX repeating Hillary Clinton’s name in relation to Comey over and over again, over multiple articles and TV segments and podcast episodes, might cement that association in someone’s mind. Maybe CNN using passive-voice and double-negative-laden sentences about questioning Comey will convey a softness or bias to some listeners, or maybe it will convey a hesitancy to jump to conclusions. Both could be reinforcing the idea that political involvement is often dirty or unethical.
What speech and writing patterns have you noticed in news coverage of James Comey? What interesting word choice has struck your attention? Let me know what you think! I’ll be back in two weeks with another blog post about words.