A Minute With...

Dennis Baron, linguistics expert

1/25/2012  12:15 pm

Given that this is a presidential election year, President Obama’s State of the Union speech Jan. 24 was, of course, tinged by politics, but University of Illinois English and linguistics professor Dennis Baron was more interested in the president’s word choices. Baron is the author of seven books – most recently “A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution.” He also authors a popular blog, “The Web of Language: the Go-to Site for Language in the News.” He parsed the president’s speech in an interview with News Bureau news editor Dusty Rhodes.

What did you look for in the president’s speech?

image of professor dennis baronTwo things: Will Vice President Joe Biden stay awake? And will Speaker of the House John Boehner unfreeze his face? In fact, Biden stayed attentive, though one Tweeter said he checked his iPhone toward the end; and Boehner, like many Republicans, including Eric Cantor, actually applauded a number of times. That’s because a lot of what Obama said was unifying, and his words were, well, as American as apple pie. Seriously, the word cloud of the most frequently used words in the speech shows the top three were “American,” “America” and “Americans,” followed by “jobs,” “new,” “get” and “energy.”

OK, so his co-stars stayed alert. Didn’t you have any expectations for the president himself?

Mr. Obama is an accomplished speaker. He has been accused in the past of sounding too professorial. As a professor myself, I don’t see what’s wrong with that – and it’s not surprising, since Obama was a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago. But his rhetorical style during the speech was not at all off-putting – remember, I’m not talking about the politics, but the president’s word choice and delivery. The president even resorted to a pun about crying over some literal spilled milk, and that groaner, an example of least-common-denominator humor, proved to be yet another unifying, defusing moment for the audience.

Did you notice any patterns to his word choices?

Shortly after the speech, The New York Times published a vocabulary analysis of the top words used over the past four years in major speeches by Mr. Obama alongside the Republican presidential candidates. That graphic shows the president, who was once criticized for not wearing a flag pin in his lapel, used “America” and “American” more frequently this year than ever, while those words occur far less frequently, and are trending downward, in speeches and interviews by Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. Ron Paul’s vocabulary seems to follow the beat of a different drummer entirely, which I suppose is not surprising for a libertarian.

Another interesting contrast: The president used the word “government” less than ever in this year’s speech, while his opponents have increased their mentions of “government” significantly. Obama’s mention of health care and education is down over past years, but his references to energy, jobs and taxes are way, way up. These shifts in emphasis represent both political strategies and signs of the times.

Hours before the speech, a Republican presidential candidate offered a “prebuttal.” That term gets a red squiggly line from our spell-checker. In your expert opinion, is it a real word?

Yes. The Oxford English Dictionary credits Vice President Al Gore with the earliest use of “prebuttal,” defined as “a pre-emptive rebuttal,” in 1996. Here’s the citation, from The Washington Post: “President Clinton’s White House and campaign team have been drawing favorable reviews for their rapid response operation and penchant for picking off issues before Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole…even gets his TelePrompTer warmed up. Vice President Gore calls it ‘prebuttal.’ ” However I wonder whether “prebuttal” might suggest not so much a pre-emptive strike but rather “putting your rear end first.”

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