Tracking the language that’s used at any one period of time is an excellent way of understanding the mind-set of that time. This is one of the reasons that the ‘Word of the Year’ tradition has become so popular – it offers a succinct way of reflecting back on the defining trends and concerns of the past twelve months. But with today’s politics throwing up crises, dramas and scandals at such an unremitting pace, this annual cycle seems rather limiting. With every week now being a long time in politics, it’s perhaps worth instigating a Word of the Week as a handy way of looking at how the linguistic contortions and rhetorical chicanery in public life reflects the political state we’re in.
Even using the truncated timeframe of a week, settling on just the one word isn’t easy. The most high-profile candidate this week was ‘lodestar’, as used in the anonymous New York Times op-ed article focusing on the dysfunctional office politics in the White House – and, by extension, the dysfunctional politics of the way the US is currently being governed. ‘Lodestar’ wasn’t noteworthy because of what it meant however, or even because of how it was used. It was noteworthy because of the reaction it prompted. For a few hours on Thursday, large swathes of social media suddenly decided to embark on an amateur forensic-linguistics wild goose chase.
Given that the Vice-President, Mike Pence, had on various occasions spruced up his rhetoric with this particular word, the accusatory online finger initially pointed at him. Was Pence, as Adam Rifkin put it, this administration’s ‘Veep throat’? For those hoping for a quick reveal, this hypothesis was unfortunately debunked almost as soon as it had been proposed. As a number of people pointed out, forensic linguistics isn’t quite that straightforward.
But what was most interesting about the whole episode was that so many people thought they might be able to guess the authorship of the anonymous article simply from a little cursory textual analysis. That, and the fact that the personal melodramas of those involved in the running of the state proved to be such an ease distraction from the how those same people were actually running the state.
Second on the list of candidates for Word of the Week was the ever-popular ‘democratic’. If amateur sleuthing is one popular hobby on Twitter, another is what might be called ‘satirical lexicography’. This involves defining words that are bandied around in politics in such a way as to highlight the absurdity of the way they’re being used. And words like ‘democracy’, which come in for continual abuse, are perfect targets for this.
Ever since the Brexit referendum revealed the ‘will of the people’, ‘democracy’ has been wantonly bandied about as a way of closing down troublesome arguments. This week it was Theresa May employing the tactic in an article in which she insisted that ‘There will be no second referendum on Brexit’ as this ‘would be a gross betrayal of our democracy’. The logic of this as a proposition seemed a little difficult to parse. Unless of course, as the comedian David Schneider suggested, ‘democratic’ now means something along the lines of:
Taking an extreme interpretation of a very narrow mandate on an impossibly oversimplified question with unknown consequences where the winning side broke the law, cheated and lied.
And that by extension ‘un-democratic’ now means ‘Asking the people to have a final say now it’s clear what’s involved’.
Or to put it another way, democracy still involves seeking a mandate from the people, but only when the terms of that mandate are swathed in the fog of confusion and the stench of deceit.
Exploiting the elasticity of meaning of a word like ‘democracy’ is standard practice in political rhetoric. The way it’s done here does, perhaps, say something about the populist narrative that underpins so many of the debates around Brexit. But it doesn’t really illustrate anything specific about current developments in those debates.
Which brings us to the final candidate in the list – a word which, like ‘democracy’ is having its meaning turned inside-out, but which also marks a notable shift in the way that political issues are being represented in the media.
The word ‘resistance’ has been a central part of the vocabulary of today’s politics since the 2016 US Presidential Election, when it was adopted as a badge of identity by various groups standing in opposition to the values and actions of the Trump administration. The word has a very long history in grassroots groups who oppose authoritarian regimes – groups such as the French Resistance during World War Two, the nonviolent resistance movements of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and so on. And those using the label today are consciously aligning themselves with this history.
Over the last week however, the meaning of the word has expanded – and been diluted – by being used to refer to almost anyone who now signals public opposition to Trump. It was first used in this way in an article by the journalist Susan B. Glasser about John McCain’s funeral which she referred to as ‘a meeting of the Resistance, under vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows’. A few days later a similar usage appeared in the headline for the New York Times op-ed article, which proclaimed ‘I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration’.
In both these cases the word has shifted from being a label for political dissent by the persecuted to something which refers to people at the very heart of political establishment – people such as George W. Bush, or senior members of the current administration. In other words, as Christian Chun has noted, it’s now being used to refer to those who are opposed to Trump’s personal style of politics, yet are still closely aligned with the ideology he’s enacting. And as far as the influence of language use on public debate is concerned, this seems a lot more significant than Mike Pence’s predilection for astronomy metaphors.