Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Nov. 8 2016 9:00 AM

I Early Voted Today!: A Political and Linguistic Trend

As Liz Nagy reported for Chicago’s ABC 7 News, “A record-breaking 29,968 people early voted in Cook County on Friday, surpassing a single-day turnout record set during the 2008 November presidential election.” Nagy’s report doesn’t just highlight that a historic number of Americans voted early this election, though. It also underscores that more and more of us are early voting –that is, using the noun phrase early voting as a verb.

Consider some other recent examples. Indiana’s WISH-TV headlined an article by Tim McNicholas: “Hoosiers waiting hours to early vote after huge turnout.” On the NPR Politics podcast, Asma Khalid commented on the Clinton campaign in the finals days before Election Day: “They have had a laser-like focus…She’s been going to all those states where people had already been early voting for the past couple of weeks.” And on social media, voters are snapping selfies with their “I voted” stickers, proudly adding a lexical twist: “I early voted!”

Oct. 28 2016 9:30 AM

What Donald Trump Doesn’t Understand About Irony

This is a test to see if you understand irony. About to head out to a smart party, self-possessed Jenny appears wearing a dress that is quite revealing and therefore probably unsuitable for the occasion. “How do I look?” she asks her detestable housemate, John. Which of the following deadpan responses might best be described as ironic?

A) John: Isn't that a little too formal?

B) John: That's great as a first layer. Now I’d suggest a cardigan and elbow-length gloves.

C) John: I think if you go out dressed like that, there’s a serious risk you’ll never make it to the party.

I’m not going to say straightaway which of these is the right answer. I will, but not immediately. For now, what’s important is to know that when I recently posted this test on Facebook, each of the responses received some support. Some people even voted for all three. The degree of confusion surprised me—although perhaps it shouldn’t have done, since when you look up irony in dictionaries, it turns out that their definitions disagree. That’s right: When it comes to irony, even the dictionaries can’t make up their minds.

Oct. 27 2016 9:00 AM

Does Donald Trump Talk Like a Woman?

Donald Trump has built a reputation as a lady-insulting, stamina-touting, sexually harassing, he-man woman-hating big-swinging dick of a presidential candidate. This image is what made a Politico headline from Wednesday, boldly declaring that “Donald Trump Talks Like a Woman,” so intriguing. Who wouldn’t click that? In the piece, Julie Sedivy presents some compelling academic research that compares Trump’s speaking style with other politicians and finds it surprisingly feminine. Linguistic analysis reveals that Trump uses tentative language, emotion-laden words, fewer long words, and fewer prepositions and articles, all characteristics that are strongly associated with women, a category of people Trump frequently dismisses and degrades.

In a chart based on the research of Jennifer Jones, a doctoral candidate at the University of California–Irvine, Trump appears as a “stunning outlier”: His language registers as more feminine than any of the 34 other politicians Jones studied, including Ben Carson, Chris Christie, and Trump’s other Republican primary opponents; former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama; and even actual women like Hillary Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro, and Michele Bachmann. According to the piece, these results aren’t just based on hunches or stereotypes but on statistical differences between the ways man and women talk as established by language researchers.

Then why does it feel like this argument wouldn’t pass most people’s gut checks? That Trump is a linguistic outlier has been discussed at length, with various experts and outlets weighing in and trying to nail down what makes his speaking style so different from what we’re used to. (Politico itself even previously concluded “Donald Trump Talks Like a Third Grader.”) The way he talks is different, for sure, with all kinds of repetition and odd syntax that routinely frustrates transcribers. And it stands to reason that this style is what some of his supporters like about him. Politico points out that “[r]esearch has shown that the more feminine a speaker’s style, the more likable and trustworthy he seems.” Is it possible for Trump’s speech to possess many of these indicators—using “emotional” words like beautiful, using fewer articles (contrary to the reputation he’s developing for using the word the while talking about some groups, i.e., the blacks)—and still not sound feminine?

Take for example the quotes the story uses to compare Trump and Hillary Clinton’s speaking styles in this fall’s presidential debates. This is how the Trump one starts: “My tax cut is the biggest since Ronald Reagan. I’m very proud of it. It will create tremendous numbers of new jobs. But regulations, you are going to regulate these businesses out of existence. When I go around—Lester, I tell you this, I’ve been all over.” And here’s Clinton: “I don’t think top-down works in America. I think building the middle class, investing in the middle class, making college debt-free so more young people can get their education, helping people refinance their debt at a lower rate—those are the kinds of things that will really boost the economy.” Amateurs like me could try to dive into those statements—I found the use of moderator Lester Holt’s first name pretty masculine, the kind of thing a sleazy salesman might say, and I found Clinton’s use of “I don’t think”/”I think” feminine for its tentativeness. But the kind of research being discussed here seems like it’s more in the weeds, the kind of thing you would need a Ph.D. to decipher. Are most people going to notice how he uses prepositions? “Trump talks like a woman” is a provocative headline, maybe even one that will get under some Trump supporters’ skin, but it’s just not totally convincing.

Maybe one reason for this is that it’s pretty difficult to separate what Trump says and how he talks from the specific linguistic markers he uses. This study doesn’t seem to have taken into account voice, tone, gestures, facial expressions, emphasis, and all of the other nonverbal things that come together to create the speechifying entity that is Donald Trump. And that’s all before the content of his messages, which also don’t scan as particularly feminine. He may check off a lot of feminine linguistic boxes, but he doesn’t sound like a woman. He’s sui generis: He sounds like Donald Trump.

Oct. 26 2016 10:59 AM

What’s With All Trump’s Talk About “Draining the Swamp”?

In a press release from Oct. 17, Trump pledged to “drain the swamp in Washington, D.C.” He then tweeted: “I will Make Our Government Honest Again — believe me. But first, I’m going to have to #DrainTheSwamp.” Since then, Trump and his supporters have punctuated tweet after tweet with the hashtag. What are they talking about?

Politicians have long colored calls to clean up government corruption with drain the swamp. In 2006, newly elected Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi pledged to “drain the swamp” in Congress after 10 years of Republican control. After 9/11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld committed to “drain the swamp” of terrorism; the phrase was a favorite of Bush administration officials during the ensuing wars they launched in the Middle East. Earlier, in 1983, President Reagan described his chief mission as “draining the swamp” of big government.

At its bottom, drain the swamp is a metaphor: If you drain the swamp, you eliminate the mosquitoes (or snakes and alligators, in other iterations) that breed disease. But, ironically, the original disease the expression referred to was the very thing Trump has built his campaign on: big business. Etymologist Barry Popik has traced drain the swamp back to the socialist movement of the early 20th century. In a 1903 letter to the Daily Northwestern, Winfield R. Gaylord, state organizer of the Social Democratic Party, precursor to Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party of America, wrote: “Socialists are not satisfied with killing a few of the mosquitoes which come from the capittalist [sic] swamp; they want to drain the swamp.” Another Wisconsin socialist, Victor Berger, provides a textbook example in 1912: “It cannot be avoided any more than malaria in a swampy country. And the [financial] speculators are the mosquitos. We should have to drain the swamp—change the capitalist system—if we want to get rid of those mosquitos.” The following year, labor and community organizer Mary “Mother Jones” Harris (and magazine namesake) deployed the phrase: “The capitalist and striker—both men are all right—only they are sick; they need a remedy; they have been mosquito bitten. Let’s kill the virulent mosquito and then find and drain the swamp in which he breeds.” The mosquitoes, for Harris, were the deeper, industrial forces that pit labor against bosses.

Drain the swamp isn’t just a vivid conceit with a revolutionary flair: It also alludes to the stubborn myth that Washington, D.C., was built on a swamp, which, fatefully, had to be drained to accommodate the new seat of American democracy and power. As historians and scientists have noted, only a tiny fraction of the District, for all its humidity, was ever swampy enough to require any such drainage; the ecosystem is actually closer to a tidal marsh. (Manage the tidal marsh, while perhaps better characterizing the day-to-day slog of government work, doesn’t have the same ring to it.) Myth aside, drain the swamp has proved sticky over the course of the 20th century, used by Democrats and Republicans, socialists and capitalists, to condemn whatever particular malady they believe is plaguing our government.

But leave it to Trump to drag this mucky metaphor even further into the mud. For Trump’s swamp isn’t just home to political cronies and crooks, whom the expression typically targets: The media, polling, leaders of his own political party, the abstract Establishment, and just about anything that challenges his view of the world, and himself, gets sucked into his vortex. A pro-Trump political cartoonist, Ben Garrison, illustrated some of the swamp things Trumpism wants to cleanse, from CNN rats to bloodthirsty globalism:


Notice, though, the #MAGA-capped amphibian in Garrison’s cartoon. It’s Pepe, a cartoon frog appropriated as a symbol of white supremacy and much memed in support of Trump’s candidacy. And frogs, well, live in swamps—not to mention that you can’t drain a swamp like you empty a bath. You have to build special ditches and canals that redirect the water. But knowing that would require doing a little bit of homework.

Oct. 24 2016 9:30 AM

In Honor of the GOP Nominee: What Exactly Is an Assclown?

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

Have those creepy clowns been terrorizing your neighborhood this autumn? Kick ‘em in the seat of their oversized, particolored pants with this choice insult: assclown. To be sure, I’m certain we can all conjure up some far stronger words for those evil motherfuckers, but let’s have a closer look at this jester gibe.

Oct. 21 2016 1:37 PM

Profanity Censorship Is Arbitrary. Stop Doing It.

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

Ben Zimmer called the dissemination of Donald Trump’s recorded conversation with Billy Bush a “watershed moment in public profanity,” since major news outlets such as CNN and the New York Times presented Trump’s remarks without bowdlerization. Even Times subscribers who avoid the internet and cable news had to confront the words pussy and fuck on Page One, above the fold and before the jump, on their way to the Saturday crossword.

Let’s compare this with how the Times handled the death of Keith Scott two weeks earlier.

On the afternoon of Sept. 23, the Times website posted a video of Charlotte, North Carolina, police officers’ deadly confrontation with Scott, which his wife, Rakeyia, recorded on her cellphone.

Oct. 21 2016 9:30 AM

The Strange and Searching Linguistic Experiments on Bon Iver’s 22, a Million

Bon Iver’s chart-topping new album, 22, a Million, is a dense, cryptic mashup. Musically, Justin Vernon qua Bon Iver overlays his earthy, aching melisma with processed, robotic-sounding samples. His lyrics leap from mundane acts of folding his clothes to religious images of folding his hands in prayer. The track titles are numerological riddles, the album artwork is marked with alienlike symbols, and yet its visceral core requires no decoding. These polyvocal textures tell of personal, relational, and spiritual breakdowns and reconfigurations—and, just as dramatically, linguistic ones, too.

22, a Million’s track titles are conspicuously strange. For instance, Track 1 is “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, Track 3 “715 - CRΣΣKS,” and Track 9 “____45_____.” Each reads like a line from a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem composed in The Matrix. The mélange of numbers, symbols, and typography suggest a relationship between signifier and signified that is unstable and slippery, as if to scramble what we can express with our words and the meaning we can access through them. As John Ashbery, whose poetry never rested in probing for a language to transcend the experience of individual consciousness, articulates this linguistic predicament in “Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror”: There are “no words to say what it really is.” Vernon’s titles enact a breakdown of meaning, at once exposing a foreign code when our familiar letters have fallen away and hacking into our dull, ordinary language with an exotic cipher.

Oct. 20 2016 9:30 AM

Why Do People Keep Talking and Joking About Humans?

If you have a favorite human, the latest in GIF technology now allows you to let him or her know it in no uncertain terms. The “YOU ARE MY FAVORITE HUMAN” GIF delivers an all-caps message that shimmers over a disembodied alien head in stars. Meanwhile, the Wonka expresses the same sentiment, but for candy-tycoon-weirdo fans. In the physical realm, there are “favorite human” cutoff tanktops; you can also purchase “favorite human” mugs, greeting cards, and onesies, some of which are accented with aliens, hearts, and space-traveling cats to give your feelings some pizzazz.

Such webanalia comprises just one new use of humans among us. Nowadays, referring to a person as a human in the singular and to people as humans is spreading in popularity and into various conversational realms. I don’t have the anthropological studies to verify this phenomenon, but the cool kids around me keep wielding human as a term of endearment, in the “favorite human” sense, and they’re also using it to mimic the perspective of their pets, as in, my sweet tabby Lorenzo thinks I’m his human.

Every person who has ever uttered bleep bloop has known the pleasure of imagining themselves as a robot. Part of the fun is thinking about humans as a foreign species, one lower and weaker than your own. Poor little human. So feeble, so bogged down with emotions and technical flaws. This is classic stuff—allusive to Isaac Asimov and Star Trek and The Twilight Zone and more—and referring to a human or humans in the second- and third-person is key to the game. But with artificial intelligence finally interacting with us in the form of Siri, Alexa, and Cortana, robo-homo relations have crossed a new frontier.

The internet is probably inspiring more human use than any robot, though. Some people have grown fond of calling themselves or others human to acknowledge or scorn feelings of, well, inhumanity that can plague a life online. Get offline and be a human, the smugs chide. I finally went outside today, I had to feel like a human, honest people confess. I met someone in the meatspace Monday and remembered I am actually a human—OK, I made this one up. No one has met a human in the flesh in five years.

Life online is wondrous, but it can also feel cold, remote, and yes, alien. As the internet, smartphones, and A.I. have invaded more and more human hours and days, it’s only natural that we are using human to acknowledge and reckon with people as a species apart from this rapidly ubiquitous technology, and that we’re reaching for a word that emphasizes our physicality and biology. (It’s an instinct behind the trend toward natural, organic, handmade, artisanal everything, too.) The joke nods at our simultaneous familiarity with digital life—a new thing—and estrangement from what’s elemental, a very old thing. This astonishment at biology is funny; comedian John Hodgman uses it when he discusses his “human children.” I’m 30, people around me keep procreating, and some refer to their offspring as “human babies.” This always makes me laugh; it’s either acknowledging that this little baby is a bizarre creature that may as well be a robot or a monster or an alien, or it’s self-deprecating, hinting that we’re just normal folks living digital lives, and oh right, it’s the human baby that’s earthly and uncorrupted by technology. A human, how strange.

Oct. 19 2016 10:50 AM

Inside Locker Rooms and Other Male Spaces

Locker rooms have gotten a bad rap lately; one half-expects a forthcoming tweet from Lockers.com distancing itself from Donald Trump’s comments and avowing its corporate respect for all women.

First, let’s dispense with what should be obvious to anyone positioned outside of a certain basket: Trump’s claims to Billy Bush, if true, constitute an admission of sexual assault; even if they were said in private, with the disclaimer of their being hyperbolic “locker-room talk,” the sentiments and language are inappropriate for a potential president who would have the world’s most powerful bully pulpit; they’re of a piece with Trump’s countless public denigrations of women, despite his protestations that campaigning has changed him; and the same widespread horror should have greeted his equally distasteful opinions of Mexicans, Muslims, black Americans, his political opponents, their wives, John McCain, etc.

What I suspect is most shocking to people isn’t Trump’s diction per se, but that his private self (or at least his performative private self) is not, in fact, a toned-down version of his stage persona. I long believed this, or hoped it was true; how else could he have survived in liberal-elite Manhattan social circles for so long?

Oct. 14 2016 11:40 AM

When Did Baked In Become So Baked In?

In what precious little downtime they have this pell-mell campaign, the commentariat is apparently relieving stress in the kitchen, gearing up for holiday sweets, or bingeing on The Great British Bake Off.

Consider a few remarks from last month. On RedState, Jay Caruso observed, “The people showing up to rallies are baked in supporters. They are people who are going to vote for Trump, no questions asked.” Appearing on The PBS News Hour, David Brooks noted that Clinton’s “e-mail story and the other stories are sort of baked in the cake.” The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson’s concluded “the great majority of the electorate’s support appears baked in.” And as a political science graduate student explained to the Wall Street Journal: “Partisan political preferences are so thoroughly baked in that voters may be impossible to sway.” As just these few examples suggest, baked in seems, well, baked into our political analysis these days.

Baked in—an expression that rests on the idea that an ingredient baked into a cake is like a part inextricably incorporated into the whole—isn’t exactly new. Quote investigator Garson O’Toole traces it to Walter Wriston, former head of Citibank, who used it to characterize the inevitable consequences of late 1970s monetary policy: “It’s baked in the cake that we’re going to have a recession in 1980.” Since then, the finance community has taken up baked in to name “projections, expectations, and other news items … already taken into account” in the market, as Investopedia explains. Here’s a recent example from MarketWatch: “Twitter is a stock that is priced to perfection if you consider that an acquisition by Google, if it happens, is already baked in.”