Words and Meanings

Can we Americans talk to each other? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be no, and the intentional misuse of language is one reason we can’t.

I think it was GOP strategist Frank Luntz who first advised his party to obscure its goals by using phrases that softened/concealed meaning; he even wrote a book back in 2007 titled “Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.” As Deborah Tannen pointed out in 2003 (link unavailable),

Take the repeal of the estate tax. An “estate” sounds like a large amount of money. Indeed, before President Bush persuaded Congress to legislate a phase out of the estate tax, only the largest 2 percent of estates were subject to this tax. But change the name to “death tax” and many more Americans become sympathetic to repeal. After all, everyone dies. Death is bad enough without being taxed.

How many would get all worked up about an exceedingly rare abortion procedure (that the Alan Guttmacher Institute estimated represents less than one-fifth of 1 percent of all abortions performed in the United States in 2000)? But attach the name “partial-birth abortion” and a second-trimester fetus becomes a half-born baby. 

Who among us wants to call ourselves anti-life? Win the name game and you’re more than halfway toward winning the battle. Win enough naming battles and you’re on your way to winning the war.

Since the demise of Roe v. Wade, we’ve all become familiar with arguments about what it means to be “pro life.” Nice human beings all want to be supportive of life, but Red state legislators are rather clearly unconcerned with the lives of rape victims or women with dangerous pregnancies; they are also unconcerned with the health and wellbeing of those babies they’ve “saved” once they’re born. (And how “pro life” is the GOP’s all-in support for gun “rights”? Is defense of permitless carry really consistent with calling oneself “pro life”?)

The use of language to mask what’s really going on is hardly limited to the abortion debate. Take the indiscriminate use of the word choice. Choice is a great term; it can be positive–as in citizens’ ability to choose a religion, a marriage partner, or whether to procreate (choices the GOP’s Christian Nationalists oppose), or it can be a word that masks less positive “choices”–destroying the public school system via “school choice,” or “choosing” not to open your place of business to Blacks or gays. 

That latter “choice” brings me to another highly contested term: religious liberty. Who isn’t for religious liberty–the right to believe or live as one’s conscience dictates?

What today’s MAGA GOP means by religious liberty, however, is their right to remake the law of land in order to privilege fundamentalist Christianity–to return women, gays, non-Whites and non-Christians to the subordinate status in American society that their religion dictates. Requiring obedience to civil rights laws violates that dominance. (Serving that slice of pizza to a gay person clearly imposes upon their religious liberty…) 

The publication of Project 2025 provides evidence that intentional misuse of language continues to shape far-Right discourse; for example, the effort to destroy the civil service is presented as a path toward “efficiency.” (In this case, that may even be a proper use of language–dictatorships are usually more efficient than messy democracies.)

Project 2025 is also strong on “family values”–another term favored by a political party that certainly doesn’t value “those” families. What Project 2025 calls “family values” are policies that discriminate against LGBTQ+ citizens and women, and emphasize the importance of traditional nuclear families.

There are other words that obscure rather than illuminate. A recent favorite is “weaponization”–an accusation hurled at government officials applying existing laws to Republicans. Another is actually a new word: “woke.” Woke-ism is basically a commitment to fundamental fairness for all American citizens, which raises the question why it produces so hysterical a negative response.

These newer terms join old favorites like “socialism”–the Rightwing’s preferred label for any social program. Social Security and Medicare were originally opposed (and still are) as “socialist.” (Again, as with “efficiency” the label isn’t incorrect–just pejorative. The U.S., like all modern societies, has a mixed economy, with a robust private sector protected by socialized efforts like police, fire protection, garbage collection and other collective services.)

I’m sure readers can come up with other examples. Disinformation would be impossible without the ability to disguise truth  by misusing and distorting language. I believe it was French diplomat Charles Maurice De Talleyrand who famously said that “God gave humans language so they could conceal their thoughts from one another.”

No wonder Americans are having difficulty communicating…. 

22 Comments

  1. What’s a political party to do without a lexophiliac advising free speech. You try to write a speech with a broken pencil! It’s pointless! So what if a Democrat lost his left side in an accident. He’s all right now. Well, he shouldn’t have joined a school of fish to take debate!

  2. Some words are, and can be abused because the meaning and importance of other words are no longer taught. “Sophistry” is one such word.

  3. “Words and Meanings” Let’s talk about the word “poll” and especially the reported results of those polls. In this era of Trump I have received literally hundreds of polls and surveys with basically the same questions to be responded to and ending with pleas for money via that poll or survey. I do NOT donate on line; have any of my responses on hundreds of polls and surveys supporting Democrats, President Biden, democracy and the Constitution been counted because I do NOT donate on line? I read an E-mail posted late yesterday that support and donations for President Joe Biden have risen above Trump since that near fatal “debate”. The support and donations are coming from grass roots level supporters who trust Joe and Kamala to carry on their progressive actions to “save the soul of this nation”, meaning democracy, Rule of Law and strengthening the Constitution of the UNITED States of America. I am down here peering through weeds with grass roots level voters supporting and donating but the Democratic party has joined the Trump/MAGA GOP minions working against us.

    The words “the state of the economy” as being “strong” is simply not explained to mean Wall Street and the Stock Market are strong and getting stronger. They are supporting one another by buying and selling and raising prices to maintain their profit margin and we are paying for it at supermarkets, service and merchandise providers and medical care. President Joe Biden did NOT increase the profits and he does not control Wall Street or the Stock Market and the misunderstanding of the disinformation is costing him his presidency and his life as he drives himself 24/7 to keep us safe from Trump, MAGA, White Nationalists, the Freedom Caucus and now the Supreme Court has turned on America and Americans. SCOTUS’ “Words and Meaning” need no explanation; they are turning us into a Monarchy as we watch the UK vote out their conservatives and replace them with liberals to save their democracy. The UK is the nation we fought a Revolution to escape being controlled by a King and we are now becoming what we fought that war to become again controlled by a King.

    “No wonder Americans are having difficulty communicating…. “

  4. Did someone say “Vast right wing conspiracy?”

    Has anyone noticed that when a special counsel is appointed to investigate a Republican, it’s always a Republican. But when investigating a Democrat, it’s always a Republican?

  5. Peggy; Republicans can thank Mitch McConnell for that “Vast right wing Conspiracy?”; we have discovered a lack in the Constitution which provides no way to forced elected officials to carry out their Oaths of Office. The Republicans simply refuse to take action or to take adverse actions and Democrats do not stand up to force them to follow their Constitutional duties and responsibilities as REQUIRED by the Constitution. This “Vast right wing Conspiracy?” has now created the dangerous dichotomy of “escalating the slow down” of all of Trump’s trials. There is nothing “conservative” about their war on America and Americans using those “good people” of the neo-Nazi protesters and bastardizing the 1st and 2nd Amendments of the Constitution they will destroy if elected to the Executive Branch of this government to add to their control over the House from their slim majority and the Senate from their minority position. And the Senate situation is another dichotomy aiding the Republicans.

    “Words and Meanings”

    What was the “meaning” of the term Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) and what brought about the end of that united education facility of decades? We can trace it back to Gov. Mitch Daniels who appointed enough Purdue Board member to be rewarded with this Presidency of Purdue University when he bowed out of the Governor’s Office. Did Purdue leave the liberal Indiana University or did Indiana University escape Purdue University conservatism? How is that working out for staff and students alike and which political party has benefited by the breaking of this united education site? it is the GOP who have been determined to destroy public education throughout this state using vouchers to empty the public education budget. The “Words and Meanings?” preventing this ended when the “words” lost all “meaning” in state and federal Constitutions at the hands of the Republicans.

    Lies have taken over the meaning of all words in this election year and lies are what we see throughout the media with no confrontation by the media to provide facts.

  6. Freedom of vs. freedom from. Our founding documents leave us free to be Christian, Jewish, Hindu… or atheist. Freedom of religion without freedom from religion is neither.

  7. Thank you, Lynn. I read the link you posted about Frank Luntz and his influence on political hyperbole. What a walk down memory lane! More substance in the headliner than can be found in detail of proposed policy.

    >> Frank Luntz wrote “The Language of the 21st Century” in 1997, before President Clinton succeeded in balancing the budget and President Bush succeeded in creating the largest budget deficit in American history. Now that the tables have turned, Democrats could take Luntz’s advice. “We need simply to state: ‘We must not mortgage our children’s future to pay for the mistakes of today.’ We need simply to ask: ‘What does this do to the children?'” <<

  8. As soon as FDR twisted the arms of some of, if not all of, the big money folks of his day, to install “The New Deal,” the monied class has been working tirelessly, through the succeeding generations, to undue that “Deal.”
    Their success has been remarkable, and much of it has been the result of bait and switch tactics couched in sweet-sounding words and phrases. GWB even tried out a program called “Blue Skies,” that would have made Burbank’s smog seem a relief!
    Now, with the Orange Ogre lying as many times as he draws breath, a return to GWB would also seem like a relief!
    Norris…good stuff!

  9. Two interchangeable words are advertising and propaganda. We all have numerous portable and fixed screens that connect us to the world of advertising delivery. Every second they are on, they display our choice in advertising for what we desire.

    Of course, in our minds, there is a difference between “commercials” and “content,” but is there? Isn’t a movie or a TV show an advertisement for itself? Doesn’t it appeal to people like those in its typical audience? Content is like a contract; it is a mutually beneficial choice.

    Our choice to live immersed in advertising and propaganda is the source of many social ills, and Trump is one of them. That’s the current political issue between Trump, the professional entertainer like Reagan, and Biden, the professional public servant.

  10. Truer words were never spoken, or written, or otherwise communicated, and amount to lingual fraud when deliberately employed for such purpose. I’m thinking of sponsor-naming of bills that accord with love and helping the poor which are in fact the reverse and how such misnamed laws to be would fare in committee amongst the hue and cry of the lying First Amendment patriots.

  11. The English language is famous for being the hell of connotation. What is amazing is when, in our politics, words/phrases become “weaponized” and those who the weapons are pointed at stick doggedly to them, despite the terrible damage at the ballot box – think, “defund the police” and “Black lives matter” for two. The most amazing of these is “progressive” – which now “means” “The Squad” no matter who uses it or what it means. The DEMs all failed English.

  12. Excellent points today!

    As a wordsmith, I’ve become an unintentional subject matter expert on propaganda and truth-telling. As someone mentioned about our innocuous-sounding bills in both the state and federal government, I will read what the wire services write, then follow the link to the bills and read them myself. The “reporters” can’t be reading the bills.

    My favorite term overused by our politicians and media is “national security.” It covers up or whitewashes so many subjects that it’s not funny anymore. There is much psychological projection, too. We judge others for our actions. If the US is blaming others for spying on us, it’s because we spy on everybody in the US and beyond.

    I’ve also been reading up on Project 2025. Did you know this experiment’s first practice was during Ronald Reagan’s presidency? Many point to the destruction of our federal budget and the collapse of the middle class and unions on Reagan’s Friedmanite policies. He cut the federal tax rates on the wealthiest Americans from 70% to 50%. It’s now at 37%. Project 2025 is a wishlist for conservatives, so expect that percentage to decline even further, which means severe budget cuts.

  13. Remember “No Child Left Behind”? How did that work out? It should have said “support vouchers and charter schools because we are going to make testing an impossible task for public schools” – Talk about a program that was punitive. It was not based on success – instead bad tests, reducing teaching to the pressures of tests, creating issues for the very kids meant to be helped.

  14. Don’t forget that 45 (trump) has never heard of Project 2025. He’s never going to implement it because he knows nothing about it. Just check his overnight posts. He knows nothing about Project 2025.

    Lies, damn lies, all the time the lies.

  15. Excellent, Sheila. The GOP is well on its way to capturing the general narrative as well as adopting specific language that obscures intent and generates positive reaction from those who seek to confirm their biases. The GOP and “its enforcers” also grab the words Americans cherish for them to own, like “prosperity,” (Americans for Prosperity) “freedom,” (but meaning its version, whether its religious freedom that means Christianity, or its emerging brands on the theme….but people are attracted to the simplistic and to specific words..and the GOP benefits by those whose talents extend to cliches and slogans. Getting to the truth behind the language, the slogans, etc….is no easy task. People are too willing to buy what’s on the surface instead of probing for what lies beneath.

  16. If I’m repeating what someone already wrote, I apologize. I just read the blog, and have to address one point, on which I must disagree. Dictatorships are inefficient. Corrupt regimes lop a big chunk of value off the top at the start. As whatever service or enterprise proceeds, more people/entities want their “cut.” Several times in argument, I’ve used olne of my favorite quotes. (I don’t have the source in front of me, but I believe it was Thurgood Marshall.) “A certain degree of inefficiency is the price we pay for a free society.” That does not concede a comparison to dictatorships.

  17. Perhaps the most heinous twist is “Christian.” The teachings of Christ boil down to two commandments. Love the Lord thy God, and Love thy neighbor as thyself. A good friend, a lawyer turned minister, reminds us that it is a lot easier to pray than to act as Christ would. The “christian nationalism” (lowercase deliberate) of which you speak is neither Christian nor Nationalist. A Christian loves his enemies. A nationalist wants to uplift all persons in the nation and give them incentives to be loyal. Claiming to be Christian, where such is the faith of the majority, requires no courage. Acting as you believe Christ would behave does.

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