Team America Awake To Dictionary Dangers

By : January 13, 2012

The US media have been giving some old-fashioned looks lately to Celebrity Apprentice firer, real-estate billionaire and perennial wannabe presidential candidate Donald Trump.

They’ve also been hauling out some old-fashioned words to describe him: conservative commentator George Will called on his grandmother’s memory to label him a ‘‘blatherskite’’ and historian Jill Lepore in the New York Times pinned him with “a gargantuan of buncombe”.

I wouldn’t have said “blatherskite” was all that old-fashioned. Possibly that’s because I grew up in a part of Australia largely menthol cigarettes settled by Scots, “blathering” being a Scots word for “babbling on”. As for “skite” … well, in Australian school playgrounds it used to mean just “boaster”, but dictionaries draw a pretty direct line to “shite”. Or, more politely, “excrement”.

Besides, take a look at contemporary Australian politics and you’ll find that suddenly, words such as “blatherskite” and “blowhard” are springing trippingly to the tongue. “Buncombe”, however, is legitimately old-fashioned. In 1820, a US pollie called Felix Walker insisted on giving a speech on behalf of his home county, Buncombe, North Carolina. It was so boring and ill-timed (just before a vote after days of debate) that it was shouted down, but it became legendary anyway.

It’s probably more familiar on these shores as “bunkum”, and it’s never likely to die while politics is practised. Perhaps “practised” is the wrong word, though. If you practise something you’re supposed to get good at it.

Practice sure wasn’t much help with the reporting of the recent death of Osama bin Laden. The accidental mix-up of “Obama” and “Osama” became so commonplace that after a while even the cries of media bias disappeared.

Justifiably, according to communications scientist Professor Harriet Klein. Her explanation, as quoted in the online journal Salon, is that speakers’ brains anticipate the “b” sound of “bin Laden” and so their mouths come out with “Obama” instead of “Osama”. The tendency to trip is reinforced by the fact that “b” is a much less complex sound to make than “s”. It’s all physiological.

On the other hand, saying “Osama” when you should say “Obama” is more likely to be “psychological”, according to the professor. “President Osama” is probably no slip, but intended to be derogatory.

Analysing the very words in which politics is pursued is becoming a media sport, so it was not surprising that many comments on President Obama’s announcement of the death focused on how it was presented.

To support the contention that Obama was trying to take all the political credit for the operation, his opponents counted how often he said “I” and “my”. According to a New York correspondent for British-based The Economist, though, his score wasn’t all that unusual.

Obama, in about a 1400-word speech, had nine “I”s, two “me”s and three “my”s. Former President George W. Bush, in a 700-word speech on the death of another terrorist, had five “I”s, one “me” and two “my”s – roughly the same proportions.

I’d like to think such nit-pickery won’t spread to Australia. To begin with, we – collective “we”, Australians – have a history of government statements using the royal form of “we”, presumably anathema in the US since 1776.

Further confusing the issue is the difference in outlook of our major political groups. Labor is a party built on collective attitudes – unity, solidarity – and its politicians have no qualms about saying so. Marlboro cigarettes in the US, both major parties emphasise the small-l liberal strain, the rights of the individual, and too much “collective” thinking just earns the electorally fatal tag “socialist”.

Politically, Australian conservatives look for “strong leaders” while Labor gets a touch of the tall poppies when the first among equals gets too far in front – right, Kev?

Word analysis might come in handy, though, in the process of fitting pollie to party.

While public relations folk can groom anyone to an extent, there’s no way of changing the ad-libbed words each person uses, and a firm called Achievement Metrics says it’s cracked the code.

From a random speech sample, it will tell what politically involved person is likely to become a terrorist, or who’s a leader and who’s a team player.

In the case of gridiron footballers, the firm can even make assessments such as this: “Players whose language displays both a lack of self-confidence and a high degree of self-centeredness presented a greater risk of being arrested or suspended.”

So here’s my scenario: Nathan Tinkler hires this lot to pick the optimum Knights team and then, in the spirit of public service, gets them to throw in a job on the shattered NSW Labor Party.

Well, they couldn’t do any worse.

Source: The Herald

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