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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

talking point

(journalese | “campaign promise,” “key issue”)

On this expression, I stand confused. Most dictionaries, including all three of my printed unabridged models, will tell you that this phrase means something like “selling point” or “persuasive zinger.” Most on-line dictionaries agree, although the Business English Dictionary sponsored by the Cambridge Dictionary Online gives a more complete picture of how we use the word nowadays. It’s not that that usage is extinct, but I do think it’s receding, even though most on-line dictionaries don’t say so even now — one expects printed volumes to lag behind, but these on-line editors today are just lazy, if you ask me. My prediction: in the next twenty years, “talking point” will lose the sense of “statement intended to convince,” or “kicker,” supplanted by a definition related but distinct: “item from a list of statements to reiterate.” A statement will be considered a talking point because it appears consistently in the speeches of a politician, or in commercials for similar products, or in public relations campaigns, whether it’s persuasive or not.

There’s an obvious connection to make here, and Wikipedia makes it. Those attempting to persuade others will invariably use the strongest, most convincing arguments in their favor, so when politicians use “talking point” to mean “item from a list,” it’s understood that the slogan has been carefully chosen to bolster the positions of the people who made the list. Granted. If political strategists, or jingle writers for that matter, were infallible, we would have a distinction without a difference. But they’re not, and a talking point can easily backfire, either because it’s misstated or misguided, causing voters to roll their eyes and make a mental note to vote for the other guy. It’s part of the job for each candidate to take apart the the other candidate’s talking points and show why we shouldn’t allow ourselves be bamboozled.

“Talking point” does have several other meanings. One is most commonly employed in diplomacy, meaning simply “agenda item.” Each side has a list of issues to raise, and if you’re going to have talks, you have talking points. (I don’t think you hear “talks” as much as you did in the seventies, when the word was used endlessly with reference to arms reduction negotiations with the Soviet Union.) The OED On-line offers “topic suitable for or inviting discussion or argument,” that is, anything worth bringing up in the first place. It seems also to mean “center of attention” occasionally. I ran across an instance in an essay on Rudolf Nureyev by distinguished critic Clive Barnes: “Before his escape he had been the talking point of the first Western season the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad had given in Paris. He had the kind of stardom that notoriety might enhance but could never create” (Life magazine, May 12, 1967). It’s using “point” to mean locus rather than proposition, and there’s no possible interpretation other than “cynosure.” Maybe it’s idiosyncratic, but I’ve seen a few other things like it. I would call it an unusual but legitimate variant meaning.

Random House Dictionary, so useful for its fearless dating of new entries to the American language, saddles the second decade of the twentieth century with the appearance of “talking point” (as “selling point”). The OED On-line cites Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922); the context suggests that the term is an example of obnoxious new business jargon. My guess is that this term did originate in advertising, although now it comes up most often in political journalism, if LexisNexis is anything to go by. It’s also noteworthy that the popular news site Talking Points Memo covers politics and nothing else.

Your “talking points” are what you repeat when you’re “on message.” In today’s politics, the humble talking point plays its part in the demoralization of voters and decay of debate alluded to in my entry on the latter phrase. Politicians are lavishly rewarded for sticking to the script — by their advisors, by the press, and often enough by voters — and excoriated for departing from it. Reducing political campaigns to the brute repetition of a few themes, be it ever so effective as an election strategy, negates our duty as citizens to pay attention and stay informed. Mere sloganeering can never give us the information we need to make intelligent decisions about our government.


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