Entering content area for The Web of Language

blog posts

  • Semantic State of the Union

    President Bush delivered his annual State of the Union address tonight, and what was remarkable about the 5,000 word speech was that it included no new slogans.  Thats right, read his lips, No new slogans.

    There was little in the way of quotable quotes for the public to latch on to in this year’s speech.  No only that, the president didn’t have many of his old, familiar catch phrases to stumble over, either.  Thanks to a New York Times  interactive online utility, we can count each word used by the president in the seven annual addresses that he has given so far.  For example, in this year’s speech he used the 418 times; last year he only used the definite article 333 times. That’s a gain of 85.

    Not that the speech was any more definite.  This year there were four “war on terror” mentions, but only one “way forward,” and no “stay the course” at all.  The president didn’t say “surge,” nor did Mr. Bush mention “weapons of mass destruction,” though he used the phrase twice in last year’s address.  Freedom was down 14 from last year and hope was down 10.  If you don’t like those numbers, too bad: compassion was down 4.  

    Comparing key words from this year’s speech and last gives us a kind of Dow Jones average of the semantic state of the union.  Here are some of the most active words in tonight’s trading: energy 3, down 5, though oil, at 9, was up 6 from 2006, which is certainly good news for Mr. Bush’s backers in Texas and Saudi Arabia.   

    Overall, though, the economy, at 7, was down 2, and education, at zero, also closed down 2.  Science rated a single mention, compared with 7 last year, for a net loss of 6.  Climate change did make its debut, but in keeping with the decline in science, warming was nowhere to be heard.  But abandoning science -- it's only theories, after all -- doesn’t mean the president has put his trust in God (at 2, unchanged from last year), since faith, with only 2 mentions, showed a 50% decline.

    Iraq shares were up in the president’s semantic budget, more than doubling (34 compared with 16 in 2006), while both Afghanistan and Korea were bullish, moving from 2 to 4.  In other Middle East trading, Iran lost 1 after the latest quarterly report on its nuclear industries, and Israel remained steady at 1. 

    Roadside bomb, at 0, was down 1 from 2006.  War, at 11, up 9.  Terror, 22, up 2.  War on terror rose 4, while freedom, 3, was down 14.  Fail, at 7, was up 3, and failure gained 2 on last year's total.  United States closed at 7, unchanged, but America, at 49, was down a record 23 points, though that was still higher than the president’s approval rating.

    This year the president used the phrase foreign policy once, the first time ever in a State of the Union speech.  Observers were quick to wonder if this meant that the president might actually devise a foreign policy, but nothing in the body of the speech confirmed that might be the case.  We’ll know more after the president’s final State of the Union speech next year, in 2008, when he will make one last bid to shape his legacy.  This is sometimes referred to by political economists as the triple witching hour. 

    In this year’s address, the president didn’t mention lots of other words that have been on the nation’s mind, like liberal or conservative or Katrina.  And reeling from the stormy midterm election, the word Republican didn’t cross his lips a single time.  He did say democrat once, in the phrase “the Democrat congress.”    

    Most of us use Democratic for the name of the political party, but Pres. Bush followed the Republican practice of calling the Democratic party "democrat" to keep from ceding them the high ground on democracy.  Bush preferred to keep the adjective democratic not for his political opponents, the members of the loyal opposition, but for true democrats in training in the Middle East: he said democratic four times in reference to Iraq, and once in talking about a “democratic Palestinian state.”

    Another new wrinkle in the president’s vocabulary is the word madam, which he used three times referring to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. But having to use that word, while it signaled changing political times, was certainly not the president's idea.

    Perhaps the absence of rhetorical sound bites is what’s to be expected from a lame-duck president.  Or perhaps his speech writers have signed on with one of the many contenders for the 2008 election.  But the Democrats have no such excuse.  Even though the new majority party in Congress had just completed a whirlwind hundred-hour bill-passing marathon, the Democratic rebuttal to the State of Union said even less than the president did.  Maybe the Democrats have become so used to trotting out terse concession speeches whenever they find themselves on camera that they forgot they’d actually won for a change.  Or maybe the newly-hired Democratic speech writers were just too busy cooking up sound bites for the growing field of Democratic presidential hopefuls to bother counting – or countering – the president's words.

additional blog information