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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: Donald Rumsfeld


(2010’s | journalese (politics) | “bigots,” “extremists”)

Hillary Clinton took an old adjective and refashioned it as a noun in her effort to smoke out some of Trump’s less savory supporters — mainly white or male supremacists of one kind or another. The word (more memorable as the full phrase, “basket of deplorables”) and the tactic backfired; Hillary was pilloried for insulting upright middle Americans. The world, liberal media included, promptly forgot the rest of her statement, in which she took pains to distinguish the least respectable of Trump’s supporters from those same upright middle Americans:

“that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. . . . Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”

It didn’t do any good, and “deplorables” quickly became emblematic of a campaign rife with missteps.

Last week, I referred to a few of the new expressions Bill Clinton’s administration gave us. Some of the phrases most closely associated with him — “It’s the economy, stupid” or “I feel your pain” — never have made it into everyday language. They remain Clinton’s property somehow, and we use them mainly with reference, ironic or otherwise, to the man himself. It is quite possible that “deplorables” will suffer the same fate: a word everyone grasps but which will never shake free of its origin.


(2010’s | journalese (politics) | “crybaby,” “weakling,” “snotnose kid”)

I don’t recall hearing this term before the election, but it has been making the right-wing rounds for several years — the earliest use I found came from 2011 — often in the expanded form “special snowflake” or “God’s special little snowflake.” Trump’s victory gave gleeful right-wing commentators ample opportunity to advise “snowflakes” to stop whining and admit Trump won. (Bear in mind that many of these commentators still don’t accept the outcome of the Civil War.) I’m no Trump supporter, but I too found a lot of the post-election hyperventilating tiresome. For the first few weeks, we saw a lot of cocooned, inexperienced larvae throwing tantrums ’cause Trump was so darn mean. By my recollection, most of that dissipated by the end of the year, and the word “snowflake” declined in frequency — I haven’t heard it nearly so much in 2017. Maybe it will sink back into relative obscurity. But I think “snowflake” has a much better chance of sticking in everyday language than “deplorables.” It is less closely associated with Trump than “deplorables” is with Clinton, so it’s less likely to be shunted off into the ghetto of expressions we recognize but don’t use outside certain narrow contexts. More decisively, the gusto with which some Trump partisans used “snowflake” suggests that they will continue to reach for it at every opportunity.

It’s an effective insult because it attacks from three different directions. The most obvious, perhaps, is the fragility of the snowflake, so easily dissolved and destroyed. Or if it doesn’t melt, it is entirely subsumed into an inglorious icy mass in which no single flake can be distinguished from the others. Thus, the snowflake is both frail and conformist. Another defining trait of snowflakes is that they are unique, so the term takes a swipe at the self-esteem builders who emphasize the uniqueness (which they equate with wonderfulness) of each child. Maybe it’s not mandatory any more, but “snowflake” still seems to refer most readily to the young and whiny.

There were two earlier usages of “snowflake” that may have had some influence: Donald Rumsfeld’s unofficial memos written as Secretary of Defense, which he recalled “grew in number from mere flurries to a veritable blizzard,” were called “snowflakes.” The practice of implanting “unused” (that is, created for purposes of in vitro fertilization but ultimately not needed) frozen embryos, allowing infertile women to bear children, gave rise to the term “snowflake babies.” While Rumsfeld’s memos were so called because of their sheer volume (and perhaps because they were printed on white paper), and “snowflake babies” probably had mainly to do with the fact that the embryos were frozen, in the latter case there may also have been an appeal to the fragile, precious nature of the single snowflake. Now the expression has taken a derisive turn from which it may never recover.

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(1990’s | businese? governese? | “appearance,” “perceptions,” “p.r.”)

While this expression is used mainly in political circles, it may not have originated there but in the business world. Not that there’s a great gulf fixed between them, or anything. “Optics” is a word for how things look, and it is used mainly by officials and journalists, though one comes across sightings in other fields now and then. “Optical” is an occasional adjective variant, or used to be. We’re not talking about binoculars and gunsights, even though “optics” may be used collectively to refer to devices with lenses. “It’s bad optics” means “it looks bad” or “it smells bad” or “it leaves a bad taste” — who would have thought such a humble expression the occasion for synesthesia?

Even though “optics” remains much more common in the Canadian press than in the U.S. press to this day, the earliest hits I found on LexisNexis (1986 and 1987) attributed the usage to American businessmen. It started to sound less exotic in the 1990’s, at least in Canada. Colleagues reported that it was a favorite of Jeffrey Skilling of Enron; he was listened to respectfully in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and his advocacy may have give the word a boost. Macmillan Dictionary’s blogger suggests that 2011 was the year all hell broke loose. I wouldn’t call “optics” in this sense a common word, even today, but you have to know what it means to follow the news. I prefer to think our use of the term comes from Canada; then it would join “cougar,” the only other expression I’ve covered with a clear Canadian origin. Ben Zimmer of the New York Times makes the case.

Part of the point of this word is that the institution that looks good, or bad — usually but not always the government — is assumed to be in control not just of what it’s doing but of how it comes across. Creating a favorable image is part of the job; “bad optics” are caused by lapses. The phrase is confusing, because it ought to mean inadequate vision; it sounds like a deficiency on the part of the observer rather than the agent or creator. But the ocular capabilities of observers are not in question when we discuss the optics of a situation or proposal; everyone can see the results of the latest triumph or gaffe. Attention to outward appearances, deceptive or otherwise, is as old as politics, but in recent years U.S. government officials have become much more open about attributing public resistance or discontent simply to poor “messaging,” as they say nowadays, or “public relations,” as we said in the prehistoric 1970’s. I associate this posture most strongly with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who still refuse to admit that there was a strong case against going to war in Iraq. The fact that nearly everyone else sees it that way only means that they failed to manipulate us effectively.

“Optics” serves the usual political ends of language to some extent; it is mildly obfuscatory, forcing the listener to waste precious seconds figuring out what the spokesperson is actually saying instead of focusing on the malfeasance being covered up. A writer in the Toronto Star (May 19, 1997) noted that the use of the word “optics” itself constituted a “dead giveaway that something unseemly is about to happen.” Politicians must walk a fine linguistic line, burnishing their reputations without committing themselves to anything. That requires in turn a lot of sidling up to what you mean rather than stating it clearly. It’s not a matter of flat-out lying, more a moment of misdirection long enough to distract voters from the latest scandal. “Optics” is just one more expression that helps them do that. But it has become common enough that it doesn’t serve the turn so well any more. New expressions must arise to pull the wool over our eyes.

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