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Political linguistics: How language shapes politics

| Thursday, April 22, 2021

I’ve recently begun to find linguistics — the study of language — quite fascinating (a testament to the now verifiable fact that I am, indeed, a boring grandma living inside the body of a 19-year-old). The words we choose to say and write and the ways in which we string them together construct a sort of bridge between the theoretical and the concrete, especially when it comes to politics. It’s only through the spoken and written word that an idea has the chance to materialize into a policy that can and will impact people’s lives.

Within the political discourse, I’ve observed three patterns. For some words, we haven’t decided on a universal definition, so people and politicians will use their personal interpretations to push and pull their constituents this way and that. Sometimes, opposite sides of the aisle are talking about the same issues but are just making particular word choices to describe them and to sway their constituents onto one side. Other times, I find that certain words have nearly lost all meaning and are just thrown around by politicians and the media to either scare voters away or pull them in. I guess there’s no real problem with this aspect of politics except for when language — this stringing together of words that gives us the freedom to choose how to communicate certain messages — is used to manipulate and harm. Either way, it’s become clear to me that politics, in the sense of elected officials seeking votes and pushing agendas, is often more of a language game than it is a policy game.

One example that comes to mind is the Biden administration’s recent American Jobs Plan: a $2 trillion “investment in America that will create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure, and position the United States to out-compete China.” While it’s laid out as an “infrastructure bill,” it includes things that go beyond traditional definitions of infrastructure such as broadband, the electric grid, housing, water, senior care, public schools, etc. Because it’s a plan put forth by a Democratic administration, many Republicans in Congress have spoken out in opposition to the bill (just as Democrats would speak out against any bill that a Republican administration would put forward), with people like Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee tweeting that “President Biden’s proposal is about anything but infrastructure” and posting a photo which reads “$400 billion towards elder care” in an attempt to make the plan look bad. This debate about the infrastructure plan is essentially a language debate. I’m sure Senator Blackburn and the others don’t think providing care for the elderly is bad; they just don’t think it falls into the definition of “infrastructure” and, therefore, shouldn’t be included in an infrastructure bill. What does the word “infrastructure” even mean? Should it matter that every aspect of this bill falls under the definition of the word “infrastructure” if, either way, it’s sorely needed to improve life and is popular among the American people? Is the definition of “infrastructure” one that remains stagnant or undergoes a sort of semantic evolution with time?

Here’s another example: “gun control” versus “gun safety.” As the multiple mass shootings in the past few weeks have shown, America has a problem with how easily accessible guns are in this country. According to multiple polls, there is overwhelming support for increased background checks and other safety measures for gun ownership among Americans of both parties, yet whenever a shooting occurs and human life is lost, this debate about rights, freedoms and the Second Amendment always comes back. “Gun control” and “gun safety” encompass pretty much the same thing, but that one-word distinction — “control” versus “safety” — makes these phrases able to be used in different arguments: One about freedom and another about safety. “Control” brings to mind the government taking something away; “safety” brings to mind keeping people from harm. With a change in word choice, two phrases that mean the same thing are torn apart to be used by different sides of a political debate (although there should be no debate that gun violence is a serious problem in America and something must be done). A similar example might be “illegal alien” versus “undocumented immigrant.” Again, both of these phrases mean the same thing, but one is used in an offensive and demoralizing manner to push a certain political message.

Then, there’s the way that language is used in politics where a single word has become enough to scare people away — to the point where that word has almost lost meaning because of how often it’s thrown around. I’m talking about, of course, “socialism.” This throwing around of the word “socialism” as a scare word is ages old in America, as everyone from FDR to even Joe Biden, a lifelong moderate Democrat, has been called a socialist. When a word like “socialist” is used so often to simply apply to anything one doesn’t like, then it loses all of its meaning. The same thing seems to be happening to the word “liberal.” This single word means something different depending on which side of the aisle you’re on. For conservatives on the right, “liberal” is synonymous with leftist, radical, socialist. For those on the progressive left, “liberal” connotes the Establishment — Joe Biden is a “liberal,” but AOC and Bernie Sanders are “leftists.” “Socialist” and “liberal” are two examples of language being used not to represent a single definition but to push a certain message depending on who’s using it.

Of course, at the end of the day, the words we use in political discourse don’t matter as much as getting things done. However, the importance and utilization of language in American politics cannot be overstated. It makes me think that every political action is twofold, with each part holding equal value: The idea itself and then the way it’s communicated — the way in which it uses language.


Megumi Tamura is a freshman in the Gateway Program. She is originally from Ridgewood, New Jersey and enjoys going to museums, watching political debates and eating Jersey bagels. She can be reached at [email protected] or @megtamura on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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