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Linguist Reflects On 'Years Of Talking Dangerously'

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Linguist Reflects On 'Years Of Talking Dangerously'

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Linguist Reflects On 'Years Of Talking Dangerously'

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When people look back on the language of the early years of the 21st century, the first thing that will come to mind is the political vocabulary and the language of real estate. That's what FRESH AIR's linguist Geoff Nunberg thinks. He's been looking back on the language of this decade for his new book, "The Years of Talking Dangerously."

It's a collection of his pieces for FRESH AIR, the New York Times and other publications. Jeff says this decade will evoke political language just as the '60s evoked the language of rock, drugs and disaffection; the '70s, the language of disco and New Age; the '80s, management jargon and Valley Girl slang; and the '90s, techno-talk and fitness-speak.

Geoff Nunberg teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley and is the chairman emeritus of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Geoff says a lot of the words and catchphrases that were used earlier this decade, including in the 2008 presidential campaign, have lost their power. Take the word elite, which is how candidate Obama was described by some Republicans.

Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG (Author, "The Years of Talking Dangerously"): Elite was certainly a word that, almost as much as any other, stands in for the cultural politics of the last few decades, beginning really with Spiro Agnew in the end of the Nixon years and continuing through the '90s. You remember Dan Quayle's railing about "Murphy Brown" and the cultural elite, and up to the president.

Over the course of time, it's acquired a meaning that had, particularly for the right, had less to do with having real wealth and influence and so on than with the sorts of things you buy and your attitude. As long as you think you're regular folks, you're not elite or an elite, as they say now.

Elites, as they say it, are people who look down on the regular people, so that you can get - you have the spectacle of people who would, by any traditional definition, qualify as more than elite, throwing the word around in a dismissive way.

The height of this was during the campaign, when Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, the American millionairess who married a titled Englishman, went on Wolf Blitzer and said that she wasn't going to vote for the Democrats because Barack Obama was an elitist who looked down on the common people.

Now, this was a spectacle so remarkable that even people on the right felt a certain distance from it, but at the same time the way the word is used by people like Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, Ivy-educated lawyers from privileged backgrounds, gives a sense that it simply has nothing to with money and power anymore but merely a question of attitude.

GROSS: Geoff, your previous book was called "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." And the premise of that book, the previous book, was that the Republicans had succeeded in packaging their message in catchy slogans and that the Democrats should learn from that.

Now that you see a lot of those catchy slogans as having kind of petered out and that they're not going to be effective anymore, what do you think of the thesis of the previous book? Have you changed your mind about that? Do you think that the Republicans no longer have the monopoly on the catchy phrases?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, I do think certainly the Republicans no longer have a monopoly. I think it began to unravel just after the 2004 elections. You could put the moment just before the 2006 election when Bush said to George Stephanopoulos we've never been stay the course. Even Fox News couldn't resist showing all the footage of Bush saying stay the course, but that begin a series of slogan recalls…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NUNBERG: So that wanted dead or alive morphed into I don't know where he is and I frankly am not that concerned, and just before the 2008 election Bush was asked if he had any regrets, and he mentioned the mission-accomplished banner aboard the USS Lincoln in 2003 and said, well, I was trying to express myself, I could have expressed myself more artfully.

Now, in retrospect, that's certainly true. I'm sure the advance people for that particular speech wish in retrospect that they'd gone with something a little more non-committal like way to go, guys, or something like that. But what you saw was in that period, the language of the Bush administration, with which they had so skillfully dominated the political discourse over the first four or five years, just crumbled, and it crumbled not because it wasn't sufficiently artful and certainly not because the Democrats made any inroads or were particularly skillful in using language themselves, but just because of the structure fatigue, if you want to call it that, based on trying to span this increasing gap between words and reality.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're listening to both Democrats and Republicans now trying to come up with new phrases, with a new language, to describe their positions in ways that they hope will catch on?

Mr. NUNBERG: Yeah, the Republicans certainly are trying to find new ways of turning their populism from cultural to economic issues, and I think these cries of socialist and socialistic have a lot to do with that. The Democrats, on the other hand, have the same problem.

What's extraordinary about the Obama election was he did it really without language. He was so skillful at speaking and conveying his message without using buzzwords and the like that he could get enormous mileage out of these essentially empty words like hope and change that nobody else - everybody else tried it, and nobody else could use those words the way he could, but they have no content.

They're not the kind of words you can hand over to somebody else in the hope that they'll be able to use them, unlike the Republicans' language. The extraordinary thing about the values talk was that it could be used effectively not just by an effective, charismatic speaker like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, but by characters like Jon Kyl and Mitch McConnell, who whatever their considerable political gifts, are not what you'd think of as charismatic, but they can use this language and get mileage out of it too. The Democrats don't have language like that right now.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Geoff Nunberg, who often comments about language on FRESH AIR, and he has a new book called "The Years of Talking Dangerously." That's a collection of his FRESH AIR pieces, as well as pieces from the New York Times and other publications.

GROSS: I'm sure you've been keeping up with not only the debate about torture but the debate over what word to use to describe the interrogation techniques that were used, and some people have been using torture for a long time.

Some publications say you can't use the word torture because that's a legal - there's like a legal definition of torture, and when they were doing it they had a legal definition that was different, courtesy of John Yoo and others in the Office of Legal Counsel. So what are you hearing when you hear the debate about whether - like when it's appropriate to use the word torture, and if not that word, what word should be used?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, you know, what's interesting is that right after the Abu Ghraib story broke five years ago, all the European papers right away were using torture. The British, German, French press, left and right, not just the Guardian but Rupert Murdoch's Times, were calling it torture, and the American press then and now have been very reluctant to use that word, and they have this idea, well, it's a legal category. That's because the administration insists it's a legal category and have defined it in a way such that these things won't count as torture in the legal sense.

The administration's definition obviously doesn't have any broader legal significance even beyond the administration, much less on a world scale. And more to the point, it's an English word, and the moral judgment that attaches to torture doesn't have to do with its legal status, it has to do with looking at these acts and describing them as torture. So that somehow to - if the administration was talking as if, if we can keep that word at bay, we can keep at bay the moral disapproval that comes with it. So you've got all these terms like alternative sets of procedures and vigorous questioning and of course enhanced interrogation techniques, which people are still trying to use.

And with that came this word professionals that Bush kept using. He said these are our professionals. We want our professionals to know that they can do this in a professional - which suggests not simply that they know what they're doing but that they're not taking any pleasure in it.

So I think this is a perfect example of the way in which the words you choose determines whether you think something's alright or not, not the thing itself but the way you choose to name it. It's something you see not just with torture - with suicide, for example.

If you ask people in a poll is it okay for doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives, you get a lot more people saying yes than if you ask them if it's okay for doctors to help terminally ill patients commit suicide. And again, this is a semantic debate. The important thing to realize is there's nothing merely semantic about it.

GROSS: For the past couple of years, we've all had to - if we want to know what's happening in the economic world, we've had to learn words like credit-default swaps and derivatives and all of this, like, financially technical language that those of us who aren't intimately involved with Wall Street are having to learn to make sense of what's going on. And I guess I'm interested in your observations on all of us struggling to learn that language.

Mr. NUNBERG: There's a sense, certainly, in which we feel if we can learn the language and learn to use the words, we'll somehow be able to understand what's going on, and if we understand it, it won't be quite as frightening. And journalists have done, in recent times, a pretty good job on helping people to understand, at least the people who want to understand these things.

But the facts, as Walter Lippmann said, exceed our curiosity. I don't think people are ever really going to be able to understand the ins and outs of this crisis just because obviously so many regulators and people in Congress were unable to, and in a funny way the effort to master the language of economics and finance takes away from the immediate experience.

I was thinking of this because there's a line in a Bruce Springsteen song, when one of the characters says, lately times ain't been too good on account of the economy, and it occurred to me that 40 or 50 years ago, if Woody Guthrie had written that song, 60, 70 years ago, that's for Guthrie, he wouldn't have said on account of the economy. He would've said on account of times are hard.

And it strikes me that that's exactly what's going on now. We don't know if it's a pullback or a depression or a bad recession or what. What we do know is that times are hard, and in a funny way, maybe that's the language we should be using because it's the language that grows out of our immediate experience of what's going on.

GROSS: I think part of the urge to understand credit-default swaps and derivatives and all that stuff is to know, like, who got us into this mess and who should we be holding accountable, and what should we change for the future in terms of regulation, and that's where times are hard doesn't get you very far.

Mr. NUNBERG: I think that's right, and there's a difference between knowing the technical mechanics, so to speak, of what's been going on and trying to get a grip on it, and that's something that a lot of people, myself included, are trying to do, and trying to understand what's actually going on in the world, and we don't want to lose sight, when people use these words like recession and downturn and whatever, not that the words are inaccurate, but they don't grow right out of the experience that people are having, and in that sense something like hard times, I'd like to see that phrase resuscitated and brought back just to describe what's actually going on in America.

I don't think the two are at odds with one another. You can on the one hand try as best you can to develop an understanding of what's going on and who's to blame. At the same time, look at what's going on in the country and describe it in words that grow out of the situation itself, the words that ordinary people use that they understand what going on, in terms of what's going on in their lives.

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's linguist, Geoff Nunberg. His new book, "The Years of Talking Dangerously," is a collection of his FRESH AIR commentaries, as well as his pieces for the New York Times and other publications. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Geoff Nunberg, and he often comments about how our language is changing on FRESH AIR, and he has a new book called "The Years of Talking Dangerously." That's a collection of his FRESH AIR commentaries, along with articles he wrote for the New York Times and other publications.

One of the things I learned from your book is that you sometimes edit Wikipedia entries. You know, I always wonder who were the people who were actually editing, you know, revising Wikipedia entries when they spot an error, and you don't do it often, but you're apparently one of those people. So what are your criteria for saying, okay, I'm actually going to go ahead and make the change because, I mean, I've seen errors. I haven't tried to correct them.

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, I think there are two reasons why - there are people who just spend all their time doing this, and more power to them. There are two reasons I find for going to edit an entry. One is when I come up with some cool observation and go to see if Wikipedia has it and they don't.

So for example, Colin Farrell, in the opening sequence of a movie, the name of which I forget, sings "I Fought the Law" in the persona of the character he plays in the movie. And I went to Wikipedia, it wasn't there, but there is an entry for "I Fought the Law." So I added that fact about - Brian Horwitz, San Francisco Giant outfielder, briefly a San Francisco Giant outfielder, and so forth.

On the other hand, sometimes you'll see something really stupid in a Wikipedia article or just wildly incorrect, and then you also feel an obligation to go in and try to correct it, though there what often happens is you try to make the correction and other people come back and correct your correction, and you wind up going back and forth. It's a frustrating process and sometimes you just throw your hands up.

A friend of mine, a colleague, Paul Duguid at the School of Information, went in to try to fix the article on Daniel Defoe, which he noted had five factual errors in its first two sentences, and he went through a long, months-long battle, struggle, to get these right, and at the end of three months, those two sentences had nine factual errors.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NUNBERG: So reader beware.

GROSS: What has this done to your sense of how to use Wikipedia and when to rely on it and when not to?

Mr. NUNBERG: You know, I think the interesting thing is people are getting very - it's invaluable, and it's also a menace, and everybody knows that, and I think the trick is to know when you can rely on Wikipedia.

I mean, if you want to know who were all the guys in Humble Pie who weren't Peter Frampton, who but Wikipedia is going to know that? When did Barry Bonds win the MVP, the National League MVP Award for the first time? There's 7,000 people contributing to the Barry Bonds article, and it's not conceivable that they could collectively get that wrong.

Anything about Harry Potter or Star Trek, you can be dead sure that the Wikipedia article is right. When it comes to other topics, the English language, Daniel Defoe, Max Beerbohm(ph), or as you know, FRESH AIR, you have to be a little more careful about interpreting what the collective wisdom is.

GROSS: Geoff, if you had to choose like one source to eavesdrop on or to read to see how language is changing, what would it be? Taking Google out of the picture. I guess that would be cheating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NUNBERG: Wow. I might want to read my daughter's Facebook page, but though I have access, it's only through a thin window and she's got the settings fixed so I don't get to see any of that stuff, and probably I wouldn't want to see it for other reasons. But I think that one of the interesting things is that with Facebook and email and the Google groups and blog comments and so on, you can get a look at the language of groups like young people or social groups that haven't been participating in written discourse whose writing and whose language was never publicly visible before.

So you don't have to go around with a tape recorder the way people have done, although that still helps, but you can actually can go on, say, Google groups and see how people are talking, actual people are talking.

GROSS: In your new book, Geoff, you mention one of your English teachers, and I guess this was in high school, Mrs. Bosch(ph), who was, like, really a stickler for correcting grammatical errors and things like that. Was that helpful or just irritating?

Mr. NUNBERG: I think everybody has to have an English teacher like Mrs. Bosch if you want to learn to write well. Mrs. Bosch is the English teacher who, with withering sarcasm, dismisses all the errors and grammatical solecisms in her students' papers. So somebody has the misfortune to write, Having been thrown in the air, the dog caught the stick, or something like that. And Mrs. Bosch is the one who says, The poor dog being thrown in the air like that, and you're in seventh grade or eighth grade and you laugh. You're being let in on this secret.

So you have to have a teacher like that, and then at some point later in life you have to renounce her and then finally forgive her, and that's the point at which you become, let me say, a mature speaker of English, and the trouble is that a lot of people kind of never get over that moment.

They're the people who write comments on any blog entry or newspaper article that involves grammar, going on sarcastically about someone else's use of language. And the sarcasm that people apply to language is really something that they learn in seventh grade and kind of never overcome, and it's what's wrong with the way people think about language nowadays.

GROSS: Why is it wrong? Because the people who do that - and you know, I've been target of many corrections over the years - do people who do that think A) they're doing you a favor; and B) they're right and therefore they almost have an obligation to let you know that you've made a mistake? So what do you think is the problem and the motivation?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, I don't think the motivation is merely to inform someone else. That can be done when it's appropriate, and it usually isn't. But when it's appropriate, it can be done graciously, without sarcasm.

The sarcasm comes when, oh, I don't know, somebody writes in broad daylight and somebody says, well, could there have been narrow daylight? And it's this adolescent way of congratulating yourself on having mastered the elements of English grammar when you were 13. And it's kind of stupid because the things you learn at 13, while they're the basics, are hardly the source of - should hardly be the source of enormous self-esteem.

I mean, if it's really a source of self-esteem for you that you know the correct rules for using apostrophe, maybe you should get out more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And this is coming from a linguist. Well Geoff, great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. NUNBERG: It's great to talk with you. Thank you.

GROSS: Geoffrey Nunberg's new book is called "The Years of Talking Dangerously." Geoff is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information of the University of California at Berkeley, and he's chairman emeritus of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

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