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Decoding the Political Buzzwords of 2012

Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg gives his analysis of this year's top political words.

Photo Credit: Cristo


As the year draws to a close, we checked in with linguist Geoffrey Nunberg to get his analysis of the top political buzzwords of 2012.

Lauren Feeney: What political words struck you as particularly interesting this year? 

Geoffrey Nunberg: Like all campaigns, this one generated a bunch of nine-day wonders — words of the week or month like “Romnesia,” “Etch-a-Sketch,” “self-deportation,” “unskew,” and so forth. Others were more insistent — “dark money,” “SuperPAC.” When I was trying to pick a word of the year for my Fresh Air language feature, I was tempted by Romney’s “47 percent.” I think it stands for a shift in the language of class in American politics, as a kind of bookend to last year’s “one percent.” The right used to insist that there were no classes in America — even to mention the word was class warfare. Now they’ve drawn up their own battle lines in the middle.

But it’s a little misleading to focus on that one item — words really fly in flocks, and this one comes with “moochers,” “takers,” and “lucky duckies,” the repellent term coined by The Wall Street Journal about a decade ago, not to mention “gifts” and “goodies.” And in particular there’s “entitlement”— not a recent word, of course, but it figured a lot in the election, particularly after Ryan’s nomination, and it has been shifting its meaning in what I’ve described as a kind of semantic sleight-of-hand. Time was that “entitlement” was a positive word which implied that people had a moral right to certain government benefits. Bill Moyers recalls what LBJ said to the Republicans about Medicare: “By God, you can’t treat Grandma this way. She’s entitled to it.” Then the word got colored by the psychological meaning it has in “sense of entitlement,” where it implies an unwarranted claim to something. When people on the right talk about the “entitlement society” nowadays, there’s an unspoken “unearned” in the background; it evokes the “culture of dependency” narrative — “entitlement” has become just another word in that “47 percent” and “moocher” lexicon.

Feeney: So what did you finally pick for your Word of the Year?

Nunberg: I went with “Big Data.” Not everybody is familiar with it. It didn’t get the wide exposure of “47 percent,” but it was the talk of Silicon Valley and Davos, and it was all over the place in venues like Forbes, The Economist and The New York Times tech and business sections. And whether or not you knew what it was called, you knew about its effects — the software called analytics that chews over all the data we’re kicking up from our web surfing, our tweets, our purchases, our cable boxes, our Facebook pages and our cell phones. There are Big Data analytics behind a lot of the threats to our privacy — those ads that follow us as we move around the Web, the websites that sell or swap our personal information, the “stalker apps” that track our physical location — that has to be a strong candidate for creepiest word of 2012. And even more ominously, there are the security agencies that are combing over our travel and credit card records trolling for possible terrorists. Those have some people wondering if we’re moving in increments toward the surveillance state — just last March the Justice Department authorized agencies to retain for five years the personal data of people who aren’t suspected of terrorism.

But Big Data has also changed the way we do epidemiology, economics, sociology, even linguistics — and by-the-by, it was the superiority of the Obama campaign’s voter data and analytics that helped them overcome the Republicans’ financial advantages in reaching voters. So it’s not a good or bad thing in itself, but it forces us to rethink our notions of privacy and personal information.

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