Exclusive Interview With Geoffrey Nunberg, On The Years Of Talking Dangerously

[ Posted Wednesday, May 20th, 2009 – 15:08 UTC ]

Some writers love words and language more than others. At one end of this continuum are writers who use language much the way a carpenter uses tools, and don't think about the tools much (would a carpenter say he "loves" his hammer or saw?). At the other end of the scale are writers such as Geoffrey Nunberg, whose love of language is a core part of not just their writing, but their whole being. For instance, his impressive "day job" is researching linguistics at Berkeley's School of Information, meaning that even when he isn't writing, he is still thinking about language.

His previous book's full title proves this point, with what has to be an all-time champion subtitle -- Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show. The book lives up to this jaw-breaker of a title, and is one of the best things ever written about the problems liberals have had for years in competing with conservative phrasing and issue-framing.

Now Nunberg is back with a new book, written about the use of language in recent days, both in the political sphere and in everyday life. The book, The Years of Talking Dangerously, is a compilation of recent essays, op-ed columns, and commentary from appearances on NPR's Fresh Air. In his introduction, Nunberg calls them "snapshots of language during the final years of the Bush era."

Reading The Years of Talking Dangerously was a delight, because the book covers so much ground, and does it so well. I got the chance recently to interview Nunberg, which follows this mini-review of his new book.

As to be expected in any book about language, some of the terms Nunberg throws around are brand-spanking new -- from "omnigooglization" to the "phonetosphere." Some are well-known, but what is new is how the author traces their usage back to their origins -- such as being thrown "under the bus" (a fairly recent addition to the lexicon).

Nunberg also traces the lineage of the term "non-apology" back to J. Edgar Hoover in the early 1970s, who had to issue one (which was then christened, for the first time in print, a "non-apology"), for making the following statement: "You never have to bother about a president being shot by Puerto Ricans or Mexicans. They don't shoot very straight, but if they come at you with a knife, beware."

Bu the most interesting of these to me was an essay on the long history of "Joe..." characters in American political history: from the original Joe Blow (who first appeared in the 1920s); through the lesser-known Joe Bloggs (Joe blogs? Who knew?) and Joe Zilch; to the more-familiar Joe Schmo (from Kokomo), Joe Palooka, Joe Lunchpail, Joe Sixpack, and Joe Camel; ending, of course, with Sam Wurzelbacher (who shall forevermore be known as "Joe The Plumber").

There's a whole essay devoted to the word (if it can be called that) "um." And another on the plight of poor Pluto ("planet" or "dwarf planet"?). But although the book at times is hilarious (such as his "Hiawatha" parody on email spam -- "In my in-box, every morning, / Scads of offers sent by spammers..."), it also covers a great deal of very serious ground as well -- such as what Nunberg writes about the language struggles during Hurricane Katrina's aftermath:

Evacuees, victims, displaced, refugees, survivors -- as with the question of what to use in place of looting of food and water, there's no ideal solution here. But that's as it should be. If you weren't struggling to find the right language to describe what you were seeing over the last two weeks, you probably weren't paying close enough attention.

The whole work is very accessible reading, almost a collection of blog posts (lots of very short chapters, an ideal book to pick up and read from at random). You'd expect to need a dictionary handy to read a book written by a linguist, but I only had to look a single word up while reading ("reify: to convert into or regard as a concrete thing").

Nunberg, talking about libraries, says: "Most scholars will tell you that a lot of the most interesting books they've read are ones they happened on when they were looking for something else." The Years of Talking Dangerously is exactly that type of book.

[Full Disclosure: I was provided with a promotional copy of The Years of Talking Dangerously by the publisher, but received no other compensation or consideration for writing this article.]


What was the American Dialect Society's 2008 word of the year?

"Bailout." Unimpeachable, but not very inspired, and probably not memorable, the way the news cycle moves these days. Twenty years from now, if you ask people when "bailout" was the word of the year, they're apt to scratch their heads.


In your Introduction to your book, you mention that the 2009 word of the year may wind up being something like "shovel-ready" or "workout" (of your mortgage). Two that have caught my eye recently are the Bush "torture memos" and "dog whistle" (what used to be "code words" in political speech), but I'm not sure either one has staying power. What recent terms do you think may qualify for this year's word of the year?

"Torture memos" is a newsworthy subject but not a particularly interesting phrase -- if that were the area, I'd go with "enhanced interrogation methods," not an expression that anybody will soon forget. "Dog whistle politics" is evocative -- my guess is that both the phrase and the thing will be with us for a long time. As for what will be the 2009 word of the year -- well, it's too early to know, but if the election were held tomorrow it would have to be something wonky like "legacy assets," though if the gay marriage bandwagon keeps gathering steam it could wind up being "spouse."


Republicans are attempting (once again) to use the label "socialism" as a fear word. But since a huge slice of American voters grew up after the Cold War era, is the term socialism losing its power to smear? Don't younger voters tend to see socialism as something out of the pages of their history books, rather than something to worry about in modern American politics?

The Harvard School of Public Health did a survey last year asking people whether they thought "socialized medicine" would help or hurt the health care system in America. A majority of the people who responded said it would help -- and the approval ran two-to-one among younger people. So it isn't likely that the word is going to work its old magic in scaring people away from the Democrats, the way it could when the Republicans evoked it to denounce every Democratic program from child labor laws to Social Security. (Back in 1952, Harry Truman said that when Republicans criticized a Democratic program by saying "Down with Socialism!" they really meant "Down with progress!")

This is rump language -- the language a party starts to use when it folds in on itself to lick its wounds, as its members try to persuade themselves they're more pure than the pure. That happens to most parties after a big setback. The only difference is that now there's a business model that thrives on political isolation. The Limbaughs and Hannitys flourish when their peeps feel embattled and beleaguered -- it isn't as if Limbaugh is going to try to grow his audience by moderating his language to appeal to centrist voters. Epithets like "socialist" and "fascist" enable people on the right to bond with each other and -- though they may not acknowledge it -- to alienate everybody else. Linguistically, it may be a long winter for the right.


In your essay on the terms "progressive" and "liberal" you end with: "The difference between progressives and liberals is that progressives believe there is one." Do you think that the term "liberal" has been so demonized by conservative opponents (best example: Ronald Reagan calling it "the L-word") that the term is approaching meaninglessness in terms of how Americans define themselves politically? Or do you think in the era of Obama the word can be "reclaimed" by the left as something to be proud of again?

I honestly don't know, though clearly Obama isn't going to lead this charge. But so long as "progressive" is touched with a slight disdain for old-fashioned middle-class liberals, it isn't going to be as an unapologetic rallying cry for a broad sector of Americans. Pacifica stations can call themselves progressive: MSNBC and the like will do better with the L-word. The shift of attention from cultural to economic issues may help revive the word; this isn't about what you drive or what color cheese you buy anymore.


What do you think Barack Obama's best "framing" of an issue has been so far (since he was sworn in)? What was his worst framing job?

Linguistically speaking, it's early days yet for the Obama administration -- this may be a great time for business and economics writers, but it has been a slow season for linguists. We haven't heard too many catchphrases that can compete with the inventions of the Bush years. Using "recovery" for "stimulus" isn't in the same league as "the ownership society" or "healthy forests." But the administration is starting to spread its rhetorical wings -- "the New Foundation" has an ambitious ring. It may rank someday with "the New Deal" and "Morning in America," or it may crash and burn like "The Ownership Society." In the end these expressions don't retain their glow once people perceive that there's nothing behind them.


Your essay on the word "elite" ("Where The Elites Meet") traces the changing nature of how the word is used politically, from a traditional meaning of "the rich and powerful" to the way conservatives use it now as "snobs who think they're better than the rest of us." In it, you write: "That broadened meaning of elite is apt to create some confusion for liberals who haven't cottoned to it. They're apt to get indignant when they hear elite pronounced with a sneer by people who would indisputably qualify for the label under the old definition." But you failed to address the term "elitist" at all. So how would you define "elitist" today, from both a righty perspective (elite = "cultural elite") and a lefty outlook (elite = "financial/power elite")?

An elitist used to be a person who believed in rule by the best and brightest -- initially, it wasn't necessarily a pejorative word. Now it has become a term for people who think they're superior to everyone else. That new meaning is more appropriate for the right than for the left, since the right is trying to make this a question of attitude than actual power, wealth, and influence. So we were treated last year to the remarkable spectacle of the multimillionaire Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild explaining on CNN that she was supporting John McCain because Barack Obama was an elitist who couldn't connect with ordinary Americans. Granted, almost everybody found that one ludicrous (well, except Lady L., which only made it funnier), but really she's only a notch up from Ivy-educated lawyers from privileged backgrounds like Ingraham and Coulter ranting about "the elites" who "hate us," as Ingraham puts it, making free use of the first-person plural. There's a condescension in that that insults the intelligence and dignity of American working people. In fact, "elitism" has become a self-diagnostic term these days: when you hear somebody using the word, it's a pretty good bet they're guilty of it.


In the political labeling arena, there seems to be one term that both sides occasionally try to claim for their own. Unlike other political monikers, "populism" seems to be a tough term to define. How would you describe the concept of "populism" in America today, and how can it apply to both Barack Obama and the tea party demonstrators?

Populism is a technique and a language, not a policy or ideology -- it's not a question of what you're trying to get from people, but how you're hit on them. That's why we don't use "populist" the way we use "liberal" and "conservative" -- there are no "populist voters" or "populist constituencies," just "populist politicians," who try to play on a public's sense of aggrievement and indignation at the rich and the powerful (or sometimes, just at the people we perceive as snooty). In recent decades "populist" has been a watered-down term for anything that has down-home or down-to-earth appeal -- you see it used to refer to everything from Steven Spielberg to Oscar de la Renta's downmarket fashion line. So it may be regaining some of its original force as a term anchored in a sense of economic injury.


Do you think bloggers are aiding in the downfall of proper English, or do you see them as a revitalizing force which is updating English usage? How about the commenters to blogs (the "language police" or "grammar police") who keep the bloggers on the straight and narrow by, for instance, pointing out the difference between "loath" and "loathe" when we bloggers misuse such terms? Or how about the Twitter phenomenon, where all communication is reduced to a 140-character limit?

There's a kind of observer effect here -- it isn't that the state of English has gotten any worse, but that we're seeing a broader slice of it. People are always pointing out that beauty of the Internet is that anyone can set down his or her thoughts and reach a vast potential audience, so it shouldn't be surprising that a great number of the participants in the new electronic discourse are people whose grasp of English orthography and grammar was always a little shaky. Take a word that's tough to spell, like accommodate. In the press, it's misspelled a bit more than one percent of the time; in the Google newsgroups it's misspelled over 60 percent of the time. But that error rate on accommodate has probably always been about right for the mass of people who write without benefit of a copy editor -- the only difference is that before now, their spelling errors were visible only on the notes they left on their refrigerator doors. Still, it provides grist for the language police -- really we should call them the minutemen, the sorts of people whose sense of self-worth rests on having mastered the rules for using the apostrophe in seventh grade. And you can blame the Internet for making them more visible, too.


In your essay "Branding the Phonetosphere," you talk about brand names becoming a true international "lingua branda," and how brand names such as moxie, dry ice, and zipper have become common (uncapitalized) words over time. [Full disclosure: I should note that I still use "TelePrompTer," just because it's fun to type that way.] But what about the reverse process? When do common names and titles deserve capitalization? When do you go from calling him "Joe the plumber" to the more formal "Joe The Plumber," in other words? Is there some sort of secret meeting of linguists and semanticists that decides who and what is truly worthy of uppercase letters, or does everyone just start capitalizing such a term at the same time independently?

The philosopher P. F. Strawson once talked about phrases that "grow capital letters," like "The Bronx Bombers." The question is, when do these go from being a description to a name? There's a fair amount of variation in the press, even in dictionaries, and sometimes it's politically interesting. For example, since 1989 the press has been capitalizing the word "communism" much more than it did -- the implication is that the word is no longer a general term like "socialism," which can be realized in different places and periods, but a specific historical interlude like National Socialism.


OK, I just have to ask this. In a footnote to a piece about Wikipedia, you mention that (in addition to pleonasm, pinko, and the estate tax) you have contributed to the wiki entry on "I Fought The Law." Which begs the question: what exactly did you edit or contribute? Inquiring minds want to know!

"For the 2003 film Intermission, Colin Farrell recorded a version of the song, singing it in the guise of his character in the film."


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


4 Comments on “Exclusive Interview With Geoffrey Nunberg, On The Years Of Talking Dangerously

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I always find it interesting to see how a word, phrase, term or concept evolves over time. I guess it is what is meant when you talk about a "living" language.


  2. [2] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Chris, thank you oodles and bunches for this treat! I LOVE Nunberg's work on NPR and in print. He was one of the writers who drew me to HuffPo in the first place.

    You asked him two questions I wanted to ask: bloggers and spelling nazis. There's a subset to those questions, however: deliberate misspellings. "Teh," "Pwned," "lulz," etc being the best-known examples, these are meant to be ironic commentary in and of themselves -- meta-words that can only ever possibly appear in a graphic medium, whether screen or page. I would love to ask Nunberg about this. Is the internet actually creating a new kind of word?

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Note to all -

    I have finally caught up on all comments from the previous week, so you should check the last few columns for responses to your commentary.

    Stan -

    If what you say is true, then you would enjoy the heck out of this book. It's not all about etymology, but Nunberg's insightful comments on all sorts of angles about the way language lives and, indeed, evolves, will hold your interest throughout. I guarantee it.

    Osborne Ink -

    There is a certain reporter for HuffPost who revels in the "texting spelling" of certain words, such as your examples, as well as "oh noes!" and suchlike. I still can't decide whether it is annoying, or a public service to those who don't have easy access to teenagers to decipher such things. I have to admit, I had to look up "pwn" or "pwned" the first time I saw it. What won't those crazy kids come up with next, eh?

    Nunberg has a whole chapter (all the "chapters" are essays of only a few pages) on blogging, but he takes the long view. He points out, interestingly enough, that this EXACT SAME DEBATE took place -- over a hundred years ago. The first "Twitter" debate over the possible changes to English happened over... are you sitting down?... the telegraph. Words cost money back then, and so the foreshortened English style of telegrams was seen by some as the foreshadowing of the death of Standard English. Didn't happen. He points out that today's students know the difference as well -- the SAT essay graders say they almost never see such fripperies on formal essays by the same students misspelling text messages. They know the difference, in other words.

    But, as I promised yesterday, here is his final chapter, in full. It is a parody of "Hiawatha," and if you know the original poem, is hilarious:

    Honor Be To Mudjekeewis!

    In my in-box, every morning,
    Scads of offers sent by spammers,
    Each, to fool the filters, strewing
    In the header and the body,
    Random lines from "Hiawatha":
    "And Nokomis warned her often"
    Get your clearitol and cum pills;
    "O beware of Mudjekeewis"
    Make your wife or girlfriend speechless;
    "Lie down not upon the meadow"
    Safe Prescription Medication;
    "And Nokomis fell affrighted"
    Over half a million clients;
    "Downward through the evening twilight"
    Free Fed-Ex on every order;
    Till I have the sense of hearing
    The entire fucking cosmos
    Droning, unenjambed, insistent,
    In tetrameter trochaics,
    Lulling me to drowsy numbness...
    "Wahonowin! Wahonowin!"
    May already be a winner!


  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    OK, upon further research (wanted to provide a link to the original), here is the original version of Nunberg's "Hiawatha" parody. Not sure why he changed it, the original's just as good:

    Honor be to Mudjekeewis!

    In my in-box, every morning,
    Greetings from a slew of spammers,
    Each, to fool the filters, using
    In the header and the body,
    Random lines from "Hiawatha":
    "And the fierce Kabibonokka"
    (Get your clearitol and cum pills);
    "Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water"
    (Make your wife or girlfriend speechless)
    "Sat the ancient Mudjekeewis"
    (Safe Prescription Medication);
    "And Nokomis fell affrighted"
    (Over half a million clients);
    "For the maid with yellow tresses"
    (Free Fed-Ex on every order);
    Till I have the sense of hearing
    The entire fucking cosmos
    Droning, unenjambed, insistent,
    In tetrameter trochaics,
    Lulling me to drowsy numbness...
    "Make a bed for me to lie on."
    (May already be a winner).


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