Monday, September 08, 2008

Political etymology

From John McCain's interview with Bob Shieffer on Face the Nation.

About 75 seconds in McCain says with some emphasis

But we need to prove to Americans that this is the party of Abraham Lincoln, [pause] Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. We're the party of Abraham Lincoln.

Notice the stress he puts on Lincoln's name. That's where the primary stress would normally go but he definitely increases the emphasis. Notice also the stress on we're in the next sentence. That one is typical of contrastive stress. It's the type of stress that you put on a word only when you're trying to emphasize that another word is not the right one. He uses a contraction but he's certainly stressing we instead of are. If he was stressing are he wouldn't contract it. What's the word he's trying to negate? Well they of course. And who are they? I doubt he's thinking of the Green or Libertarian parties.

So he gives Lincoln a stress to indicated a semantic loading. Like the stress you give when someone asks 'Is she smart?' and you say 'She went to college' as if only one conclusion can follow. Not the stress that leaves the issue open 'Well she went to college, so...' But the stress that says 'Of course! You know what college means!' Note that the same word is stressed in both phrases. But in the emphatic stress the pitch starts higher and falls more clearly.

And he gives we're stress to indicate contrast. As if he's trying to reclaim an identity that has been denied his party. Trying to wrest it from the party that has taken it from him.

This argument is familiar. It's a lot like those arguments that use an etymology to argue the true meaning of a word. Even when all current evidence is contrary to that history. You can argue for instance that girl originally meant any child, male or female. But that history doesn't say anything meaningful about the way the word is used now.


  1. And anyway, what does it really mean anymore to be the party of Abraham Lincoln? Does that mean you oppose states that want to secede from the union (apparently not, Sarah Palin!--"Alaskan Independence Party," sheesh) or that you oppose slavery or that you disagree with Stephen Douglass?

  2. Well, it certainly doesn't mean that you are against the "money power" that "preys upon the nation. It is more despotic than monarchy, more insolent than aristocracy, more selfish than bureaucracy. It denounces, as public enemies, all who question its methods or throw light upon its abuses".


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