Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hope hopes

Mark Liberman at Language Log recently posted some thoughts about minimalist political slogans. Considering some slogans from both British and the American campaigns he notes that they conspicuously sparse and occasionally unintelligible.

He gathers all the slogans he can find for the Republican and Democratic candidates and concludes that "Among the 9 slogans in both parties, there is not a single verb (leaving out the quasi-adjectival participle forms proven and experienced)." But this conclusion overlooks one unlikely play on words and another that's more likely to be intended--tho I wouldn't argue the point beyond the felicitous possibility.

John McCain's campaign slogan:

  • "Courageous Service Experienced Leadership Bold Solutions"

The only likely reading is of three claims: 1. his service is characterized by courage 2. he has experience with leadership 3. his solutions are bold. But an unlikely reading could be paraphrased as "(the) courageous service did experience leadership (and) bold solutions". It doesn't make enough sense to get past a possible but unlikely reading.

Ron Paul's campaign slogan:
  • "Hope for America"

The primary reading of this one is as a claim that Paul offers hope: hope exists for American because of Ron Paul. But of course hope might be a verb. And the slogan could easily be a command. Consider it Paul's response to various questions/prompts: Who's going to benefit from the election? Will this country be like the America of old or some nefarious foreign regime? What will be the strongest world power in the future?

...(perhaps) Let's hope it's America

It would recall John Kerry's slogan "Let America be America Again". Maybe that's a better argument against this as an intentional turn.

How likely is it that a slogan chooses such an ambiguity. Unless both meanings are equally powerful and equally positive, ambiguity can be a dangerous thing. Take for instance the Walgreens slogan that claims the store chain exists because life isn't perfect. Is that really what you want us to think? that in a perfect world you wouldn't exist? How about telling us that life is far from perfect but Walgreens gets us a little closer...or we're nowhere near perfect but Walgreens is working on it...or something that doesn't sound like we're the product of human fallibility!...right?

Buffy's telling me to sit down and

I really like the ambiguity in Jimmy Carter's slogan "A Leader, For a Change". Both readings make a nice point. "For a Change" is a nice way of both offering a new horizon (there will be change with the next leader) and judging the past administration (having a leader will be a welcome change). It's a nice play on words. So nice that I'm quite sure it was intentional.

And of course political slogans like to float around sans verbs. A list of 45 slogans (here) offers 21 with clear verbs and one (Harding's "Return to normalcy") that could be a verb or a noun. Just like Paul's slogan it's either a promise or a command. You there! Return to normalcy this minute!

The second possible meaning of Paul's slogan is unlikely because it sounds too meek--even pessimistic. Don't accomplish anything anything--don't fight for anything--just sit there and hope. But then neither reading smacks of the cock-sure strut that we heard in such slogans as "All the way with LBJ" "Pour it on 'em, Harry!" or "Vote Yourself a Farm".

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