Decoding the Political Buzzwords of 2012

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Geoffrey Nunberg

As the year draws to a close, we checked in with linguist Geoffrey Nunberg to get his analysis of the top political buzzwords of 2012.

Lauren Feeney: What political words struck you as particularly interesting this year? 

Geoffrey Nunberg: Like all campaigns, this one generated a bunch of nine-day wonders — words of the week or month like “Romnesia,” “Etch-a-Sketch,” “self-deportation,” “unskew,” and so forth. Others were more insistent — “dark money,” “SuperPAC.” When I was trying to pick a word of the year for my Fresh Air language feature, I was tempted by Romney’s “47 percent.” I think it stands for a shift in the language of class in American politics, as a kind of bookend to last year’s “one percent.” The right used to insist that there were no classes in America — even to mention the word was class warfare. Now they’ve drawn up their own battle lines in the middle.

But it’s a little misleading to focus on that one item — words really fly in flocks, and this one comes with “moochers,” “takers,” and “lucky duckies,” the repellent term coined by The Wall Street Journal about a decade ago, not to mention “gifts” and “goodies.” And in particular there’s “entitlement”— not a recent word, of course, but it figured a lot in the election, particularly after Ryan’s nomination, and it has been shifting its meaning in what I’ve described as a kind of semantic sleight-of-hand. Time was that “entitlement” was a positive word which implied that people had a moral right to certain government benefits. Bill Moyers recalls what LBJ said to the Republicans about Medicare: “By God, you can’t treat Grandma this way. She’s entitled to it.” Then the word got colored by the psychological meaning it has in “sense of entitlement,” where it implies an unwarranted claim to something. When people on the right talk about the “entitlement society” nowadays, there’s an unspoken “unearned” in the background; it evokes the “culture of dependency” narrative — “entitlement” has become just another word in that “47 percent” and “moocher” lexicon.

Feeney: So what did you finally pick for your Word of the Year?

Nunberg: I went with “Big Data.” Not everybody is familiar with it. It didn’t get the wide exposure of “47 percent,” but it was the talk of Silicon Valley and Davos, and it was all over the place in venues like Forbes, The Economist and The New York Times tech and business sections. And whether or not you knew what it was called, you knew about its effects — the software called analytics that chews over all the data we’re kicking up from our web surfing, our tweets, our purchases, our cable boxes, our Facebook pages and our cell phones. There are Big Data analytics behind a lot of the threats to our privacy — those ads that follow us as we move around the Web, the websites that sell or swap our personal information, the “stalker apps” that track our physical location — that has to be a strong candidate for creepiest word of 2012. And even more ominously, there are the security agencies that are combing over our travel and credit card records trolling for possible terrorists. Those have some people wondering if we’re moving in increments toward the surveillance state — just last March the Justice Department authorized agencies to retain for five years the personal data of people who aren’t suspected of terrorism.

But Big Data has also changed the way we do epidemiology, economics, sociology, even linguistics — and by-the-by, it was the superiority of the Obama campaign’s voter data and analytics that helped them overcome the Republicans’ financial advantages in reaching voters. So it’s not a good or bad thing in itself, but it forces us to rethink our notions of privacy and personal information.

Feeney: What does it mean when people call this a “post-truth” era. Are they right?

Nunberg: The phrase “post truth” has been out there for a while. Sometimes it just meant that people are lying more than they used to, but that’s not interesting — after all, every generation sees itself as beset with mendacity. Post-truth now means more than that. It’s an indifference to the truth, as if you don’t care whether what you say is going to be believed or is even believable, or whether you’re going to be called on it. I think Romney’s charges about Obama’s “apology tour” are a good example. Nobody buys it, though it gives some partisans pleasure to pretend to. To the rest, it’s more like,  “Apology tour? Really?”

It’s an attitude you run into on both sides, but there’s a huge chunk of the right that has made it the basis of a whole worldview. It’s not just birtherism or global warming denial. There are sites out there like Conservapedia that provide a whole alternate cosmology, down to the correct conservative positions on Anglo-Saxon literature, the Theory of Relativity and Bobby Vinton. And if you’re willing to buy into all that as an article of faith or as a sign of solidarity with your fellows, then it’s a trivial matter to accept that Obama went on an apology tour or that the Affordable Care Act is an assault on American freedom that’s edging us to a communist takeover.

Jonathan Haidt has described this phenomenon using William Gibson’s notion of a consensual hallucination, and the thing to focus on here is the sense of collective identity that comes from defining your beliefs in opposition to the other guy’s. It’s connected to the way the discourse of the right has become hermetic and self-referential. I’m not thinking just of Fox News or Limbaugh, but of online discussions and Twitter. There’s a group of Michigan researchers who have been doing large-scale statistical analysis of tweeting, and they’ve found that conservatives are more densely connected, retweet each other much more frequently, and stick to a narrower range of topics than liberals do.

That creates the bubble environment that licenses politicians to make these off-the-wall charges, then answer the people who challenge them with, “Well, we won’t let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” or that marvelous remark Jon Kyl made after claiming that 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s services were abortions, “It was not intended to be a factual statement.” You’re not going to hear that sort of thing from Democrats. Not that they’re above a little mendacity now and again, but they tend to be more traditionalist about it.

Feeney: One of the most deceptive phrases in vogue this year is “right to work.” Any idea who came up with that one? Can you think of any others that are quite so deceptive?

Nunberg: “Right to work” has a long and fascinating history — it could stand in for the whole drift of political language over the past 150 years. The phrase was coined (as the “droit au travail”) by the French socialist Louis Blanc and became a slogan in the 1848 French Revolution, which was the first revolution in which workers demanded jobs rather than bread. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the “right to work” was a fundamental principle of socialism, and it’s set down as an article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where it refers to the right to have a job with fair and decent working conditions and protection against unemployment.

But the phrase was co-opted at the beginning of the twentieth century by opponents of the labor movement, who wanted to depict themselves as defending the interests of workers, rather than of employers. One of the earliest examples of this use of the phrase that I’ve found came from a 1903 editorial entitled “The Right to Work” in the Baltimore American, which attacked labor for paralyzing business and denounced their demands for fair wages and limited work hours as a kind of tyranny: “Any organization, whether or laborers or capitalists, which interferes with a man’s right to work when he pleases, where, how long, and for what wages, is unjust and un-American.” In the decades following that, the phrase became a watchword in the fight against the closed shop and the union shop, until “right to work” laws were sanctioned by the Taft-Hartley Act over President Truman’s veto in 1947. Now you have George Will praising the Michigan Republicans for “striking a blow for individual liberty,” which could have come from that 1903 editorial.

Feeney: Okay, so how should progressives talk about these laws?

Nunberg: Labor and its supporters sometimes call them “right-to-freeload” laws. That isn’t inaccurate but it stresses the conflict between workers and makes bad guys out of the ones who won’t pay union dues, while it leaves the employers off the hook. Others have called them “corporate servitude laws.” That plays well to the liberal benches, but it’s not going to be very persuasive to the people in places like Michigan or Wisconsin who are on the fence about these questions — including a fair number of Republicans, as the California Labor Federation discovered in its successful campaign this year against a Republican-backed proposition that would have virtually banned union political activity. Those voters are sympathetic to working people but they don’t bristle whenever they hear the word “corporation.” And they don’t think of working as a Wal-Mart associate as “servitude,” just as a really crappy job. Like too much of the rhetoric of the left, the name is designed to make liberals feel good about their moral values, rather than to widen support or dispel the image of liberal sanctimoniousness.

There are a couple of points you need to make about these laws. First, they’re designed by employers to break the power of unions by pitting workers against workers. And the laws tilt the playing field — employers can effectively compel stockholders to contribute to their agendas, but unions are blocked from calling on their members in the same way. But I don’t know that we need a new name for them — that’s all covered by that fine old phrase “union busting,” which was the criticism raised against Taft-Hartley — and not just by Labor, but by Dwight Eisenhower. Even in a bad era for unions, the phrase still sounds ugly and makes opponents of labor defensive (it played a bit part in the anti-Prop 52 campaign). Of course “right-to-work” is so deeply anchored by now that a lot of the media are going to keep using it, but in that case you at least you can insist that they prefix it with “so called” or stick it in quotation marks—as in “so-called ‘right to work’ states,” and so on.

Feeney: Many think that the Newtown shootings have changed the climate around guns. Have you heard any shifts in language?

Nunberg: Language does a lot of work here. “Gun control,” “confiscation,” “gun violence” — each of them trails a whole stream of associations. One thing that’s very striking, though, is the way words are used to smuggle dubious premises into the conversation that you couldn’t get away with bringing in by the front door. Take the charge that liberals have been “politicizing” the Newtown shootings, which is what you often hear in these situations. The idea is that people’s emotions are being exploited to advance an extraneous political agenda. But you can’t politicize what is already a policy concern. Saying that gun control advocates are politicizing mass shootings is like saying that advocates of stricter food standards are politicizing salmonella outbreaks.

Another word I’ve been hearing a lot is “evil,” not simply as a description of what happened but as an explanatory hypothesis — evil as a force that will have its way in the world whatever we try to do to stop it. The American Spectator’s John R. Coyne, Jr. made a remark that went viral on the right: “There is evil in the world. It’s beyond mental illness, beyond gun control. It is evil.” It’s a counsel of helplessness: it kicks the whole problem upstairs to an insoluble theological mystery. But it’s a meretricious non-sequitur. “There will always be evil” — you could say exactly the same thing to demonstrate the futility of trying to curb child abuse or insider trading. There are always germs in the world, too.


Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California-Berkeley. He is the author of Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show. His new book, Ascent of the A-Word, deals with the breakdown of modern political discourse. You can follow him on Twitter at @geoffnunberg.

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  • Nashvillesound

    Thank you for this reasoned, informative and delightful article. To your list I would add the term I noticed most painfully appropriated by the right during the campaign: “trickle down economics”
    I was flabbergasted when I first heard “trickle down” uttered by Governor Romney to refer to any attempts by progressives to protect the remaining safety nets for the sick, elderly, unemployed (not by their own choosing) and working poor. And, true to form, the right lapped it up hungrily, in the way they do before the more reasonable among them completely understand what they have done.
    I think the right using the term “trickle down” to insult the left is akin to the psychological defense mechanism of projection. There is a blindness which, if not so tragic in its consequences for our nation, would be comical.

  • vicente

    “trickle down economics” started with the great Depression and was re-invented by the greatest economic disaster called Reaganomics. That dead dog was again reinvented by Karl Rove convincing the brainless George Bush to cut taxes and has therefore been the reason why for decades the US does not take off economically. As long as there is anyone around (Romney or his parrot or whoever) in the US who believes this bul…it you will continue to be sitting in it, and the rest of the world will plug it´s nose.

    salut vicente

  • Strawman411

    I am mightily impressed by Mr. Nunberg’s analyses.

    Thank you, Ms. Feeney.

  • http://profiles.google.com/dhfabian DH Fabian

    Biggest puzzle for me: The poor have disappeared. We hear those on TV talk about middle class people who are virtually penniless (?), but there are no poor people. How can anyone who is actually still in the middle class “go hungry”? You go hungry when you’re out of money, and at that point, it’s pretty clear that you are not in the middle class. You are poor. We have working Americans who are jobless (used to call them “unemployed”). We have working people surviving on Unemployment Insurance because, guess what, they are not working. Is it that all those who aren’t rich are now referred to as “middle class” for some bizarre reason? Or is it that the poor are simply no longer regarded as human, so this generation doesn’t recognize anyone below middle class? In reality (and reality can be useful when trying to discuss issues), there is a HUGE gap between the poor and middle class today.

  • http://www.facebook.com/don.jessy1 Don Jessy

    How is it that there seems so little awareness, or discussion ANYWHERE about the general shift away from purposeful, higher consciousness in our society? -and how rapidly we have lost respect for our elders, our social programs, our neighborhoods, our benefit packages from work, even our families.

    When I was a child (67 years ago) I knew to address any adult with the prefix -Mister, or Miss, until I was given their permission to call them otherwise. If there was a complaint about my behavior by ANYONE (teacher, police, neighbor, etc) I KNEW I would have to answer to my parents…who automatically asumed I was in the wrong – just to have created a complaint about my behavior.

    Today, very few people take personal responsibility, or even know what it means. It seems ANY misbehavior can be excused if you can generate a sharp come-back, or make an irreverent joke, to be “cool.” And most people are desparate to be “cool.”

    How has it happened that we no longer have respect for honesty and truth in our society? I think since the advent of situation comedy on TV, and the dependance on unthinking violence, car crashes, explossions, in movies for “excitement” our unquestioned peer pressure to be admitted to the in-group from psyco- advertisement is reducing our ability to think critically. Fostering the Me Me Me society, the “anything for a dollar” attitude. I have travelled around the world, and the “Ugly American” has descended to the bottom in the opinion of people from other countries. We are no longer the Can-Do country, we are seen now as over ripe, over inflated egos, expecting that money will buy us out – no matter what.
    Too sad.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that this society has no consensus on how to refer to the poor, the working poor or the working class. ‘Working class’ seemed to be dropped because of its origins and association with Marxist/socialist militants. (This is similar to ‘class warfare’ as well.) But at least the term ‘working class’ was fairly clear and dignified as describing an economic class of people who earn their living by physical and mental labor but don’t own the ‘means of production’ as do capitalists. The unemployed, the poor or working poor were considered still in the working class because their only way to gain income was by labor, regardless of their current status.

    The common necessity that we have to sell our labor to survive, successfully or unsuccessfully, is the tie that binds us. ‘Middle class’ is based solely on income which is totally subjective and arbitrary. I suspect it came into use because most people know they aren’t rich but don’t want to be considered in the ‘lower class’ or ‘poor’. So they identify with those in the ‘middle class’ however defined. It is just more socially acceptable. Politicians picked up on this and use it but as a misleading and inaccurate short-hand. I don’t believe middle class is useful for the reasons you outlined. Most people in the so-called middle class are dependent on their job. Without a job or insurance, they can become very poor very rapidly. Most people can’t live off the income from investments while the rich, by definition, certainly can. (You can even run for President for 6 years without having a job!)

    Perhaps the Occupy movement did us all a favor in bringing the 1% and 99% distinction into the common vernacular. It is an easily understood and useful term (although still imprecise) which communicates the basic distinction and relative proportion between the capitalists and the working class.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.dipietro.14 Mike Dipietro

    well thought out!

  • Vigilant of Data Miners

    Great selection! In keeping with “Big Data” is this year’s revelation that Bill Gates is funding research into a “galvanic skin response bracelet” to measure student engagement and, initially suggested on his website though later retracted, to evaluate teacher effectiveness.

    Although the use of Big Data in the last election may have resulted in a positive outcome, as data are regularly collected on each of us and warehouses are compiled, it behooves us to be alert to the machinations of Big Data’s evil sibling, “Big Brother,” because in the wrong hands… And the Greedy Old Party, which sought to suppress votes through ALEC engineered legislation requiring government IDs, is all too likely to learn from their failure to capitalize on this method and try to use it in the future themselves…

  • Highly Educated Working Poor

    Personally, I think the word that was least mentioned this year is the most deserving: POVERTY.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mphollins Millicent Hollins

    I like the usage of the capital letter “N” in sentences as though using an abbreviation is more correct and polite than using the whole word.

  • Robert Michael Foster, MA

    Every time you see someone use “entitlement”, gently remind them that they were “investments”…