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Let's Look At The Language

October 9, 2010

The language of electioneering sometimes catchy, but often garbage

The pox upon my favorite month is the garbage known as political campaigning. Not that it suddenly emerges in October, but it does get ramped up these last few weeks before an election.

When Candidate X comes on TV to assure me that he, unlike Candidate Y, will deliver on this and that, I hit the mute button and lip-sync “blah, blah, blah”—no less meaningful than the actual words of Mr. X. After all, Mr. X has been in office for years and he hasn’t delivered on “this and that” yet. Regardless, I’m instructed to distrust Mr. Y. In other words, garbage.

Campaign language is not about the promotion of a competent electorate, it’s about the fluff of consumerism. No matter how much we may protest that we don’t fall for flimsy campaign language, the spin doctors know otherwise, and they’ve known it for a lot longer than the term “spin doctor” has been around.

In 1840, William Henry Harrison propelled himself into the White House with unprecedented electioneering hoopla, framed around the slogan (and song) “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” (cashing in on his exploits against the Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811). The opposition, President Martin Van Buren, was depicted by the Harrison camp as a hoity-toity man of privilege who could not relate to the common folk — a sentiment reinforced with such ditties as “Old Tip, he wore a homespun coat, he had no ruffled shirt: wirt-wirt! / But Matt, he has the golden plate, and he’s a little squirt: wirt-wirt!”

The amusing patter of the Harrison campaign was embraced by the public, despite the fact that Harrison himself had been born to a prominent and wealthy Virginia family. Truth and substance be damned, Harrison’s tactics worked. His presidency was the briefest (he died just a month after his inauguration), but the landslide electoral vote of 1840 left one of the most enduring legacies of any presidential election in our history.

Indeed, political campaigning has been a matter of marketing ever since. Among the winning slogans to enter the lexicon of presidential races are Grover Cleveland’s 1884 mantra “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine” (tell us how you really feel, Mr. Cleveland) and the 1916 chant from Woodrow Wilson’s campaign, “He kept us out of war” (well, we know how that turned out). Warren Harding’s 1920 tag line “Cox and Cocktails” was not an invitation to a party, but rather a snide comment on opponent James Cox, who was against Prohibition. (Ironically, Cox may well have maintained a temperate White House, while Harding’s White House drinking bouts with his buddies were infamous). In 1928, Herbert Hoover promised “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” (not exactly an accurate foretelling of the imminent Great Depression).

Since the Whigs sang their paean to Tippecanoe in 1840, music also has been a part of our political language. Of the many songs that have waltzed our chief executives into the Oval Office, the more memorable ones include FDR’s “Happy Days Are Here Again,” Eisenhower’s “I Like Ike,” JFK’s “High Hopes,” and, most recently, Obama’s “Yes, We Can.”

Songs, slogans, catchphrases, sound bites — these are the emotional building blocks of a campaign — yet no matter which party is represented, the language comes out the same: garbage. I suppose I could just stop voting, but the truth is, I would crawl through jagged glass to get to a voting booth. Fortunately, I discovered Project Vote Smart about 10 years ago. Profoundly nonpartisan, PVS is my favorite election resource for facts, just facts. No opinions, no spin, no fluff. Language a voter can live by. (William Henry Harrison would have hated it.)

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford’s American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language?  E-mail me: Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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