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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: George W. Bush

dog whistle

(2000’s | journalese (politics) | “coded (signals),” “speaking to people in their own language,” “telling people what they want to hear”)

In its figurative political sense, “dog whistle” first began to turn up in quantity around 2000, primarily in the Australian press. When used down there, it was generally identified as an American expression. I’m not saying they were wrong — though in 2005, William Safire quoted an Australian reporter suggesting that the phrase may have originated in Australia after all — but LexisNexis coughs up precious few examples in America, or anywhere else, before 1995. None, really; the Washington Post defined the “dog whistle effect,” a pollster’s term, in 1988: “Respondents hear something in the question that researchers do not.” (I’m not sure if this remains a technical term in polling.) In 1995, a House Republican spake thus of Newt Gingrich: “When Newt and the others would talk about what was possible, it was like a dog whistle. Some people heard it and some people didn’t. If you were tuned into that frequency it made a lot of sense.” And that, of course, is the essence of the dog whistle. One group gets it full force and the others are blissfully unaware of the hidden message, giving the in group the added pleasure of putting one over on the uninitiated. If you want to express covert solidarity, use words and phrases that have special meaning for the target, but not for others. In fact, the phrase didn’t blossom in the U.S. until shortly after George W. Bush took office; he wooed evangelicals with snatches from hymns or Bible verses intended to elude listeners not versed in Christian vocabulary. Bush used religious rhetoric in much more open ways, but he also found subtler means to reassure that reliable chunk of his base. Dog whistles, in Australia as in the U.S., get more of a workout from politicians on the right — wonder why that is — so it’s telling that the concept was associated early on with Gingrich and his merry men.

The New York Times, not normally an outlier when it comes to contemporary usage, nevertheless defined “dog-whistle politics” thus in 2005: “handful of emotive issues that will hit voters like a high-pitched whistle,” ignoring the point of the metaphor but not exactly inaccurate, either. In the more regulation sense outlined above, the phrase has always been more common as an adjective, most often modifying “politics,” but it is also available as a noun. While it is possible to use it in other contexts, it is a political term par excellence. It captures one of the many kinds of duplicity required of politicians, though it’s more roundabout than the usual “I know an easy way to make everything better, and it won’t cost you a penny.”

In case anyone is wondering if the presidential election may have prompted this week’s musings, maybe you’re right. But for the most part, Trump didn’t bother with dog whistles, and that was one of the most extraordinary features of his campaign. Hillary did use dog whistles to talk to investment bankers, but she certainly made no effort to convince coal miners that she had a deep connection with them. It’s not entirely true that Trump dispensed with dog whistles, but coyness is not one of his attributes — which doesn’t mean he’s honest — and he did best when he trumpeted the yearnings and grievances of the white right. If the dog whistle loses its raison d’être in our politics, Trump will get the credit — or blame. Dog whistles are dishonorable, but they are also an acknowledgment of an accepted range of political discourse that does not permit slander, baseless accusations, or entirely fabricated “facts” to become the stuff of campaigns. When Trump wanted to fire up his base, he didn’t bother with the subliminal. And it worked better than anything else Republican presidential candidates have tried lately. Maybe all it proves is that many Republican voters don’t like indirect messages because they’re too dumb to interpret them. Give ’em a little rhetorical red meat, and they’ll follow you to the ends of the earth.

Thanks as always to lovely Liz from Queens, who has contributed countless expressions to the blog and continues to do so. My cup runneth over.


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listen to your body

(1980’s | athletese | “don’t overdo it”)

The injunction “listen to your body” has nothing to do with listening. The verb is an exact substitute for “pay attention.” Oh, you might not like the way your joints crack, but that’s only one corner of the room this expression occupies. The doctor listens to your body every time you go in for a check-up — that’s called “auscultation” — but this phrase has nothing to do with stethoscopes, or little rubber hammers, even though it’s always reflexive. You would never say, “Hey, doc, listen to my body. Something doesn’t feel right.”

Listening to your body, in fact, has more to do with how you feel than with any of the other senses. Pain, weariness, rapid heartbeat, that kind of thing. “Feel (or sense) your body” creates the wrong impression, I suppose, and listening does include the idea of actually learning from what you’re hearing. The expression started to appear in the seventies, according to my sources, invariably in the context of running, a burgeoning fad at the time, or physical fitness (just before the spread of “wellness”). Over time, it came to be used more generally about health or lifestyle. The first instance I found in LexisNexis dates from 1977, uttered by a doctor, and doctors still use it to mean “don’t discount your symptoms.” Trainers, coaches, physical therapists. It is used both by those who can’t afford to have their bodies break down — dancers, manual laborers, pregnant women — but also by the rest of us, as a way of reminding ourselves not to push too hard. Like “give back,” it is boiled down from longer phrases: listen to what your body is telling you, listen to your body’s signals, etc. By the time George W. Bush used it in reference to Dick Cheney after a pacemaker implant in 2001, it was a cliché. I’ll quote the entire statement: “He is such a good example for Americans who may share the same condition he has, and that is to listen to your body, to take precautionary measures, and to be active.” Notice how he put it; he didn’t say, “He has to listen to his body.” It doesn’t sound natural that way.

In the imperative, it has become quasi-proverbial. Uttered sententiously, it pretends to a kind of universal irreducible truth, mother-wit so basic that even the dullest cretin recognizes it instantly. Not listening to your body buys you a hospital stay, or an early grave; the phrase is always given as an admonition or warning. I’ve covered other new phrases turned maxims: “no pain, no gain” and “pick your battles.” Will these apothegms join the ranks of “Better safe than sorry,” “Waste not, want not,” and “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”? Some day, “Think outside the box,” “Be careful out there” and “Been there, done that” may follow. Those of us old enough to remember a time before such phrases littered the landscape will slowly, grudgingly die off, and then such parvenus will seem just as immemorial. The connection to “no pain, no gain” is pretty obvious, but when I hear “listen to your body” I think of mindfulness, the mind-body problem notwithstanding. That’s what a lot of mindfulness boils down to, anyway — put yourself in a meditative state and pay attention to what your heart and lungs are doing until your mind gets limbered up and starts doing its stuff, or shuts down entirely. It’s all part of the introspective, omphaloskeptic method. Maybe the full phrase should be “make your mind listen to your body.” Now there’s a proverb worth weighing.

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(1990’s | businese (finance) | “provide incentive,” “encourage,” “promote”)

Editors and writers made a sport of deploring this word in the eighties and nineties, when it was reviled as unnecessary and clumsy, an obvious instance of a noun turned awkwardly into a verb by adding the “-ize” suffix, like “prioritize.” As late as 1997, E.J. Dionne expressed hope that “incentivize” could be expunged from the language. But it was not to be; this word has taken root and become quite common, though we already had several equivalents and it sounds clunky and jargony. The contexts in which it arose — business and politics — remain the ones in which it is most regularly used. How do you incentivize car sales or job creation? Customers or executives? Agriculture or high tech? The expression straddles the divide between creating incentive TO do something and incentive FOR someone to do something, and can apply with equal facility to either. It always boils down to creating compelling reasons for people to act a certain way, but it is not always necessary to explain what you’re doing. Gov. (now hapless presidential candidate) George Pataki once talked about “incentivizing work” among welfare recipients; Congressman Bob Inglis asked how to incentivize good health. It’s the same idea, but they skipped the part about rewarding people for finding paying jobs or adopting salubrious habits.

“Incentivize” first appeared in LexisNexis credited to chair of the Federal Reserve G. William Miller, who used the word repeatedly in testimony before Congress early in 1979. He certainly did not invent it; Google Books offers several examples as far back as 1969. In 1985, J. Peter Grace used it and was given tentative credit for the coinage by UPI. It’s all wishful thinking. Neither Miller nor Grace invented the term, but the fact that experienced reporters were inclined to give them the honors gives proof of its slow rise. “Incentivize” appeared now and then in the eighties (Jack Kemp used it in 1989) but did not really get rolling until the nineties.

A minor but nagging variant is the verb “incent,” which still makes most people with an ear for English wince, but does turn up occasionally. George W. Bush used it in the mid-1990’s as governor of Texas, though according to Texas Monthly, his aides made him stop. It was pretty new then and may not really have qualified as a word, depending on your standards, and it may not make the cut even now, for all that it appears in several dictionaries. It still sounds more illiterate than cutting-edge, and it seems to incense usage mavens more than “incentivize,” which is longer and windier but has the oddly comforting, or just anesthetizing, tone of bureaucratic language.

For while “incentivize” originated among our business mavens, it is a classic example of bureaucratese. No surprise that bureaucrats and financiers share a lingua franca, but one may wonder about the special needs of bureaucrats that bring forth words so obnoxious to the rest of us. To form a verb from a noun by adding a suffix — a practice nearly universally scorned among authorities in usage — may be seen as an attempt at precision, avoiding the use of a synonym, or near-synonym, that may be misconstrued or misunderstood, preferring to work with the exact word at hand. Cynics will reply that precision and clarity are the furthest things from the minds of bureaucrats, and their real intent is to bewilder us by creating strings of not-quite-comprehensible English sculpted to mean the opposite of what they appear, or carefully avoid saying anything at all. Both sides are right at least part of the time, but the debate has less to do with language than with politics. Ha! Just try keeping them apart.

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fuzzy math

(1990’s | journalese (politics) | “creative accounting,” “fudging the numbers”)

The first thing you need to know about fuzzy mathematics is that it is a genuine discipline, invented in the 1960’s and well established. I’m no mathematician, a rather ancient B.S. in the field notwithstanding, but the idea at the heart of fuzzy mathematics is that it is non-binary, or rather superbinary. This branch of mathematics or logic allows for states between absolute membership or non-membership in a set or truth or falsehood of a proposition, for example. I’m sure it’s every bit as incomprehensible as most advanced math or physics, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less rigorous than that old-time mathematics that’s good enough for us. The foregoing is a bit fuzzy, so allow me to append an example from Professor Bart Kosko, relayed in the New York Times (November 7, 2000): “A good example of a fuzzy concept is cool air — it has a clear meaning, but it is not black or white. Fuzzy logic builds rules out of such fuzzy terms and then embeds those rules in a computer. One rule might be ‘If the air is cool, then set the motor speed to slow.’ Another might be ‘If the air is warm, then set the motor speed to high.’ Fuzzy math lets an expert program a computer in English, but helps the computer interpret ‘cool’ according to a number of interacting variables — just as a human being does.” Cool example, dude!

In the mid-1990’s, “fuzzy math” began to be directed at a new mathematics curriculum for elementary schools based on collaboration among students, word problems aimed at practical contexts rather than memorization, and permitting the use of calculators. In some ways, the curriculum was descended from the new math of the 1960’s, and in some quarters it was called “new new math.” Critics began referring to it as “fuzzy math” in the mid-1990’s, and according to LexisNexis the term really took off in 1997, when it was used regularly in major media to deride this pedagogical approach. Culture warriors Lynne Cheney and Diane Ravitch adopted the expression; editorialists and columnists soon followed suit. At that point, the phrase had a very limited ambit, referring — invariably derisively — only to methods of teaching mathematics, and there was no sign of it in LexisNexis in any other context before 2000. The same charges are made today against Common Core’s method of teaching math, merely the latest chapter in a debate that has raged for fifty years.

October 3rd, 2000: That’s when George W. Bush vaulted the phrase into everyone’s vocabulary during the first presidential debate with Al Gore. He accused Gore of employing “fuzzy math” in his tax and budget proposals in an effort to cast doubt on promised surpluses and revenue increases. According to many commentators, Bush’s arithmetic was equally dubious, but he landed the punch. Bush can claim honors in two categories: pushing the relatively new expression into ubiquity and changing its meaning. He may not have been the first to use “fuzzy math” to mean suspect accounting, but he was the first one to use it on a national stage at a moment when most of us were paying attention. In another post I have sketched the impact of recent presidents on our vocabulary. Bush was not known for facility or felicity with language, but he gets credit for “fuzzy math,” along with “faith-based” and “surge.”

Right after Bush cannonballed the phrase into the lexicon, others took it up, and almost immediately it became a synonym for misleading calculations or misuse of statistics. Bush used “fuzzy math” to impute not just incompetence, but intent to deceive, and the phrase retains that implication, as well as a strong tendency to turn up in political discussions. It is also much more habitual on the right side of the political spectrum, like “junk science,” and it has the same quality of quick dismissal that is not required to justify itself, a quality sired by Bush in that fateful debate, when he dismissed Gore’s numbers without disputing them. The expression rarely has an affectionate side, for all that it contains the word “fuzzy.” (No word on what “warm fuzzy math” might look like.) It’s fuzzy as in imprecise, of course, not cuddly. But for all I know, the critics of new new math in the 1990’s intended it the other way, at least partly, as in coddling the children rather than giving them a dose of good old-fashioned multiplication tables.

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