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November 1, 1998 - Political Language - 2002-02-12

INTRO: with election day coming up in the United States, VOA wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble try to Make sense of some of the language of politics.

MUSIC "I Wanna Grow Up to Be a Politician"/Byrds

AA: On Tuesday, Americans vote in mid-term elections -- meaning midway through the president's term. Candidates for everything from local school boards to state governorships to the US House and Senate are out this weekend busily "stumping for votes." I'm Avi Arditti.

RS: And I'm Rosanne Skirble. Not too many politicians stand on tree stumps anymore when they give speeches. Whether candidates use public meetings or political advertisements on radio or TV -- or now the Internet -- they speak a political lingo that is constantly changing.

AA: But some words never change. Like the word "gerrymander." In 1812, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill which divided the state into voting districts that, according to his opponents, unfairly favored his party.

To some people, one of the districts looked like a mythical salamander. This animal image spawned a new word, gerrymander, which to this day means drawing up districts to favor a political party or candidate.

RS: Thank you, Elbridge Gerry.

AA: And, where would we be without the word gobbledygook?

RS: Gobbledygook, coined in the 1940s by Representative Maury Maverick of Texas. It means confusing, bureaucratic jargon. If gobbledygook sounds like something a turkey would say, you're right: that's where Maury Maverick got the word!

AA: Sounds like fowl language to me ...

RS: Wayne Fields is an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He's spent a career sorting out what politicians say and how they say it. He bemoans that political rhetoric has been reduced to negative messages known as attack ads and to the all-important sound bites on the evening news.

AA: And those short excerpts of a candidate speaking are interpreted by political handlers who work for a specific office holder or candidate. These handlers are called spin doctors.


"And, the whole business of doctoring these phrases that get used in place of arguments is an interesting phenomenon because it has to do with something essential to the process. That's to say that you are trying to represent small things in big ways in place of building ongoing arguments and political discussion.

"And then I think the language of insider/outsider politics (is another source of new words). 'Inside the Beltway' is one (term) that you hear a lot when people are attacking Washington insiders and trying to run as outsiders which has become very much a style of the last decade."

RS: The Beltway is the name of the highway that circles the Washington metropolitan area.


WAYNE FIELDS : "So somebody who thinks like people 'inside the Beltway' doesn't think like the rest of America that there is some kind of artificial boundary between the regular United States and the people who govern us presumably out of ignorance of what we are and what we are interested in."

AA: "Speaking of inside the Beltway here, what is it with all these words that end in -gate -- could you explain."

WAYNE FIELDS: "Watergate (the political event) is the origin of all of those terms and arguably most of the time is understood as the most significant of them. It brought down a presidency and all the rest of it. So when you use Irangate, or Monicagate or any of the other variations you are trying to say this event has a kind of significance, a kind of magnitude comparable to the Nixon crisis that led to the presidential resignation."

RS: And why the name "Watergate" at all? The Watergate is a big residential and office complex here in Washington. It's where the downfall of Richard Nixon's presidency began with a break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in 1972.

AA: Professor Wayne Fields from Washington university in St. Louis says the key to understanding what politicians are saying is to first figure out what they are trying to persuade you to think, and how.

RS: He says all too often politicians manipulate us through an appeal to our emotions, rather than with constructive arguments that challenge our intellect.

AA: If there's anything about American English that is a challenge to you, let us know! With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.