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What Are Words For? (When No One Listens Anymore)
What are the right words for thinking about and describing a president?On May 10, 2017 Philip Bump, a national correspondent for the Washington Post, reported on a recent Quinnipiac Poll that sought to determine President Trump's approval ratings in America. (Quinnipiac describes the parameters of the poll thusly: "From May 4 - 9, Quinnipiac University surveyed 1,078 voters nationwide with a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points. Live interviewers call landlines and cell phones."). One part of the survey asked respondents to say the first word that came to mind when they thought of Donald Trump. Forty-six words were used at least five times and are represented in the word cloud below. A similar poll was conducted in August 2015 and presents the results of the word survey for Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush in addition to Donald Trump (here are further details on how these polls are conducted).
In this module our goal is to develop a constructive vocabulary for thinking about and describing a president. Ultimately, we hope that a more careful vocabulary can lead to a more meaningful political discourse, especially among those who may have strong emotions invested in the issues and leaders. In order to reach this goal we are going to think more carefully about the meanings of words, an academic discipline known as philology. Philology, literally 'the love of words', includes the study of word origins (etymology), comparative linguistics, and contextual analysis. As we develop a better understanding of the meanings of words, we will also evaluate which words we believe can and cannot lead us to a better, more constructive, form of political discourse. As you begin this module, note the emphasis that Friederich Nietzsche places on the slow, private, contemplative nature of philology (important side note: leadership is itself often a slow, private, contemplative art):
For philology is that venerable art which exacts from its followers one thing above all — to step to one side, to leave themselves spare moments, to grow silent, to become slow — the leisurely art of the goldsmith applied to language: an art which must carry out slow, fine work, and attains nothing if not lento. Thus philology is now more desirable than ever before; thus it is the highest attraction and incitement in an age of ‘work’: that is, of haste, of unseemly and immoderate hurry-skurry, which is so eager to ‘get things done’ at once, even every book, whether old or new. Philology itself, perhaps, will not so hurriedly ‘get things done.’ It teaches how to read well, that is, slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with the mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes.
—F. Nietzsche Daybreak, Preface 5
trans. J. M. Kennedy
The English Language is a wonderful collection of words, syntax, and idioms from all over the world, with a history that is thousands of years old. Though English is classified as a Germanic language in its origin and structure, as many as 60% of it words come from Greek and Latin (the language of the ancient Romans). These words come either directly from these source languages or are filtered through other language (especially French). Often Latin and Greek words were adopted by English speakers specifically for their use in technical contexts (e.g., law, medicine, astronomy, literary and rhetorical criticism), in hopes that the meanings of these words would not change as much as they typically do when used in everyday speech. We can get an intuitive feel for the more clinical/technical feel of English words that come from Latin versus those that come from German by considering our large vocabulary for bodily functions. For example, the first word in each of the following pairs is Latin in origin while the second is Germanic: ingest-eat, vomit-up chuck, perspire-sweat, flatulance-fart, lacrimose-tearful, defecate-shit. If you think of synonymous words for the human body and internal organs, you can usually guess which are of Latin/Greek vs. German origin, e.g., cord-/card-(-->cardiovascular) vs. heart. Ultimately, the English language belongs to the family of Indo-European languages, which includes German, Sanskrit, Celtic, the aforementioned Greek, Latin, and Romance Languages as well as many others.
Ways of thinking about words
For our purposes we want to begin thinking about the 46 most common words used to describe Donald Trump in the May 2017 survey. We want to think about the precise meanings of these words, including their etymology, their semantic domain, their affective tone, and any additional observations we might have about how the word is used (e.g., is the word associated with one gender more than another? is the word formal, colloquial, or slang?).
Listening for Leadership One: Thinking carefully about words1a. For each of the 46 words below provide your own definition (without consulting a dictionary) and your own synonym (without consulting a thesaurus). Over half of the words of Latin or Greek origin and are marked by an (L) or (G), respectively, after the word. To arrange your answers you might want to use an excel spreadsheet with columns for original word, definition, and synonym.
idiot(G), incompetent(L) (see also competent and compete), liar, leader (see also lead), unqualified(L) (see also qualified and quality), president(L) (see also preside), strong, businessman (see also busy), ignorant(L), egotistical(L/G) (see also egotism), asshole (see also arse), stupid(L), arrogant(L) (see also arrogate), trying (see also try), bully, business (see busy), narcissist(G/L), successful(L) (see also succeed), disgusting(L) (see also disgust), great, clown, dishonest(L) (see also honest and honour), racist, American (see also America), bigot, good, money(L), smart, buffoon, con-man(L), crazy (see also craze), different(L) (see also differ), disaster(L), rich, despicable(L), dictator(L) (see also dictate), aggressive(L) (see also aggress), blowhard, decisive(L) (see also decide), embarrassment(L) (see also embarrass), evil, greedy, inexperienced(L) (see also experience), mental(L), negotiator(L) (see also negotiate), patriotism(L) (see also patriot)
1b. Identify at least five semantic domains or categories that these words could be classified into. Hint: you might note that both "clown" and "buffoon" speak to a person's lack of seriousness or competence in the leadership role. "seriousness" or "competence" might thus be one of the semantic domains you focus on. You might also think more narrowly of in terms of the domain of "comical performer." Do you see other words that speak to President Trump's perceived seriousness or lack of seriousness?
1c. Now select five(5) words you find most interesting and read the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) linked to each word above (include in your study the "see also" words). The OED seeks to offer an encyclopedic account of all words in the English language according to their first appearance in print and any major changes in meaning (in print) over time. As you read your five chosen entries learn the etymology (origin/original meaning) of the word. Does the etymology reveal anything about the word's current meaning or has the meaning changed too much over time? Which definition for the word (there are usually several) captures what you believe the speaker had in mind in the survey? Read the sentences provided for the entry. Which one seems to you to capture what the survey respondent might have said about Trump?
1d. Now look up the following words in Urban Dictionary, a site dedicated to reflecting the spoken English language as reported by non-experts (http://www.urbandictionary.com/): American, mental, bigot, buffoon, clown, racist, leader, asshole, patriotism. Explain how these definitions are more or less precise than the ones in the Oxford English Dictionary. Do the UD definitions tell us anything more about the word than the OED entries?
2a. Review the 46 words used to describe President Trump. Identify the ones you feel are definitely not useful for having a constructive conversation about a president as well as the one you feel are useful. Note: this exercise is not asking you to say whether you think these words actually apply to Donald Trump. You are asked to explain whether they are helpful for talking about presidential leadership in general. For example, you may wonder whether it is helpful to talk about whether a president is or is not a "liar"? The New York times published on June 23, 2017 a definitive list of "Trump's Lies", while other journalists have wondered about the importance of intent behind a false statement and whether a false statement made under a delusion should count as a lie.
2.b In addition to the words you have identified as constructive, come up with on your own five(5) pairs of opposite words that you think would also be constructive. Now look up these five pairs in the Oxford English Dictionary and provide the definition that you believe best captures what you have in mind.
Extra Credit: Either in person or over the phone/social media, start a conversation with someone who has a different view about Donald Trump than your own. Before discussing Trump himself, see if you can get the person to agree that some of the words you have chosen are in fact "constructive" for political discourse. You might invite them to add their own suggestions. Now discuss President Trump according to these agreed-upon terms. Does the conversation advance in a positive direction? If not, where does it break down? How might you overcome this divide?
Extra Credit: Select five words from the list of those used to describe Donald Trump and find an image of him that you believe matches the word. Explain in a sentence or two how you believe the image captures the word.
Extra Credit: Those who want to explore more deeply the affective dimensions of words, esp. those describing President Trump, may wish to consult the database created by Warriner, Kuperman, and Brysbaert (see link to the paper and database here), which measures nearly 14,000 lemmas (i.e., words used to make up other words) in the English language according to their valence (positive vs. negative association), arousal (tendency to excite), and dominance (associations of being in control vs. not being in control). Select five words from the Trump list that you felt were not helpful for political discourse and look them up in this chart. For each word see if you can tell whether your classification of a "not helpful" word is reflected in the valence, arousal, and dominance scores. For example, would you expect one of your unhelpful words to have neutral valence, minimal arousal and neutral dominance?
Listening for Leadership Three: Gender and the Language of the American Presidency
An additional way we can think about the words that are used in the political discourse about the presidency is through the lens of gender. Here are some questions we might ask:
- Are the words we use to talk about men in a presidential context different from the words we use to talk about women?
- Do the words we use to talk about a president, or the presidency, carry with them assumptions about men and women and their legitimacy in the role?
- What can we do in terms of our language to ensure that men and women both have a fair chance to compete for the presidency?
3b. Now examine the words that are different. Can you detect anything about them that reveals an interest or preoccupation with the gender of the person? Consider both whether words for Trump seem more masculine and whether words for Clinton seem more feminine. Explain your answer. Select five words for Trump and for Hillary that you feel are particularly gendered and replace them with gender-neutral terms.
Extra Credit: Read this guide to eliminating sexism in media coverage, especially of female leaders, from the Women's Media Center. Using their recommendations re-write all of the Trump words and all of the Clinton words from the two surveys using gender-neutral language. Now that the gender distinction has been removed, what do the remaining words reveal about the perceived differences between the two candidates?
Extra Credit: Watch this video and write down at least ten words used that could be seen as gendered. Explain why you see them as gendered. Look these words up in the Oxford English Dictionary and try to determine if they have always been gendered. In your estimation do most audiences who hear these words see them as gendered or not? In your opinion what more could be done to raise awareness of gender and language in politics?
Final Caveat: The Limits to Constructive Political DiscourseWe must bear in mind that in spite of our best efforts to develop a precise, helpful, and emotionally neutral vocabulary for thinking about and talking about a presidential leader, a democratic society must still have access to factual information about a president in order to apply this vocabulary. If, by contrast, two people do not agree on the facts or do not agree on what is a trustworthy source of information, then it will be difficult to have a constructive conversation. Note, for example, that in the two surveys we have considered Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were both described as "strong, smart, a liar, and dishonest." Presumably, the respondents using these words either meant entirely different things by these terms or they relied on different sources of information (or a different set of assumptions) to arrive at their divergent evaluations. The study of leadership is thus not complete without the techniques of source criticism familiar to historians and journalists.
Ideas for Class Activity
- Review any of the Listening for Leadership Activities.
- Build a set of technical terms that you think would be helpful for talking about presidential leadership. Encourage members of your social media community to try them out as well.
- Discuss some of the words for Trump/Clinton that not only have an ancient origin but also a historical significance and context, e.g., idiot, dictator, honour, president, money.
- Have the class divide into groups to develop an algorithm for building a constructive vocabulary for leadership/political discourse. Have groups compare algorithms.
- Have participants discuss possible responses/strategies for a leader whose opponent uses insulting, belligerent, or highly inflammatory language in political discourse. Do you return insult for insult or follow the advice of First Lady Michelle Obama, "When They Go Low, We Go High"? What are the advantages and disadvantages to each approach?
- Consider discussing the use of invective speech in Greek or Roman political oratory like Demosthenes' or Cicero's Philippics.