TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. When Chris Christie announced his presidential bid, he said...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHRIS CHRISTIE: We are going to tell it like it is today so that we can create greater opportunity for every American tomorrow. The truth will set us free, everybody.
GROSS: So that phrase, tell it like it is, which is now so associated with Christie, it first became popular in the 1960s, but it outlasted a lot of the other slang from the era. Chris Christie is hardly the only politician who has appropriated the phrase. According to our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, it goes back to Spiro Agnew.
GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: I tell it like it is - Chris Christie made that his campaign slogan. Donald Trump repeats it whenever he's challenged on something he said. And Walker, Perry, Huckabee, Santorum and others have said the same thing. It's the conventional pledge of candor, or what passes for it in American public life. It's actually odd that anybody's still using the phrase. By rights, it should have gone the way of dated '60s slang like right on and can you dig it. Like those expressions, tell it like it is had its roots in black speech in the 1940s and '50s. Back then, it just meant to come clean about something. In 1954, the R&B singer Roy Milton had a modest hit that went, tell it like it is, don't say you love me when I know you don't. The phrase caught on in the early '60s, when black activists made tell it like it is a byword for confronting the realities of race in America. It was picked up by the hippies and the student left and soon became a hallmark of youth culture. It was instantly co-opted by Howard Cosell, and the frenetic disc jockey Murray Kaufman wrote a guide to the younger generation called "Murray The K Tells It Like It Is, Baby." By 1968, George Wallace supporters were calling out tell it like it is at his rallies, apparently unaware that the phrase had been introduced a few years earlier by the likes of Malcolm X and Leroy Jones. Politicians took it up to sound tuned in and relevant. Richard Nixon used it in his speech at the 1968 Republican convention urging the forgotten Americans to tell it like it is. Gore Vidal suggested that Nixon probably didn't know what the phrase meant but assumed it was the kind of hip slang that Jack Kennedy would have heard from his Rat Pack pals in Vegas. But it was a natural fit for Nixon's Vice President Spiro Agnew. I have a little experience in telling it like it is, Agnew said, as he ripped into the media, the campus protesters and the liberal intellectuals he called effete snobs, the charge that introduced effete into the modern political lexicon. There had always been American politicians who made a virtue of their bluntness from Andrew Jackson to Harry Truman. But nobody had ever used the media quite the way Agnew did. He fed their appetite for copy even as he was vilifying them. The more caustic his rhetoric was, the more play it got and the more he became the rallying point for the resentments of what he called the silent majority, actually a phrase he was using well before Nixon did. It was around then that telling it like it is acquired its modern political meaning, which probably saved it from extinction. It isn't about personal honesty like Jimmy Carter's I will not lie to you. It promises blunt, no-nonsense talk about the hard truths that others are too craven to acknowledge. That colloquial like signals its blue-collar authenticity. I'll tell it as it is may be grammatically correct but nobody's going to want to have a beer with you. From Agnew down to Christie and Trump, it's more often politicians on the right who've made that boast, particularly when they're known for being outspoken and combative. The rhetoric works best when the speaker can square off against the conservative's traditional targets; the media who suppressed the truth, the intellectuals whom Ronald Reagan attacked for telling it the way it is not. It's true Democrats like Ed Koch and Andrew Cuomo have used the slogan. But politicians on the left often go with a different applause line and talk about speaking truth to power. The target is shifted but the effect is the same. They're going to say what others don't want us to hear. I'll tell it like it is is often followed by something like let the chips fall where they may or if you don't like it, tough. But that's always sham bravado. They're not going to run the risk of saying anything that will make their own partisans shift uncomfortably in their seats. The Republican's not going to admit that voter fraud is a myth. The Democrat's not going to say that gun control won't reduce crime. The hard truths they're going to be blunt about are the claims that are apt to get a rise out of the people on the other side, to the gratification of the people on their own. That's been the MO of political trolling since Agnew pioneered the technique a half century ago, which is why I tell it like it is has proved so durable. Donald Trump reprised another phrase from that era the other day when he told a crowd in Phoenix the silent majority is back and offered to say what everybody's thinking but nobody else is daring to admit. But there aren't any silent corners left in today's clamorous media world. Everybody's talking at once and you have to be pretty strident to get heard over the din. We still recall Agnew for the zingers he got from his writers William Safire and Pat Buchanan, those alliterative aspersions like pusillanimous pussyfooters and nattering nabobs of negativism. But those would be too polished to get the same kind of play today. These days, telling it like it is means testifying to your anger with plain talk and raw invective. Those effusions may not be memorable but you can be sure we'll stay tuned to hear the next one.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California Berkeley School of Information.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL IT LIKE IT IS")
AARON NEVILLE: (Singing) Don't play with my heart, it makes me furious. But if you want me to love you, then baby I will. Girl, you know I will. Tell it like it is. Don't be ashamed to let your conscience be your guide. But I...
GROSS: Tomorrow on our show...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TRAINWRECK")
COLIN QUINN: (As Gordon) You got your doll, right? You got your doll there?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes.
QUINN: (As Gordon) You love your doll?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah.
QUINN: (As Gordon) But what if I told you that was the only doll you were allowed to play with the rest of your life?
GROSS: That's Colin Quinn as the father explaining his infidelities to his two young children in the film comedy "Trainwreck." I'll talk with Amy Schumer who wrote and stars in the film and Judd Apatow who directed it, so join us tomorrow.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.