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What a Difference a Word Makes

posted: 10.26.12 by Donna Winchell

My son recently reviewed End of Watch for his college newspaper. In it he observed that in the hard-hitting crime drama, the LA police partners who are the focus of the movie must face a Mexican drug cartel led by Big Evil, “who uses the f-word literally every third word.” His editors–okay, they are both women–revised it to have the cartel led by Big Evil, “who is defined by his obscene potty mouth.” My son was horrified to have his readers think he would ever use the term “potty mouth.”

Word choice can be even more critical in political arguments. Witness the second presidential debate, where the exact words chosen by the candidates inspired almost as much controversy as the gist of what they were saying. Romney’s points about women and jobs may have been objectionable in and of themselves, but his phrase “binders of women” is what became the laughingstock of Facebook and Twitter. Lots of other points that Romney made during the debate were lost in the brouhaha over his word choice.

An exchange between Romney and Obama over a single word was widely viewed as Romney’s weakest moment during the debate. What the two candidates disagreed about was how long it took the White House to acknowledge that the recent attack on the American consulate in Libya was a premeditated act of terrorism instead of the spontaneous result of a protest. At issue was whether or not Obama on the day after the attack referred to it as an act of terror. Romney said it took two weeks for the White House to inform the American public that it was an act of terrorism. Obama insisted that he called it an act of terrorism the day after the tragedy in a Rose Garden speech. Candy Crowley, the moderator, settled the matter by agreeing with Obama. Whether or not Obama used a certain word on a certain date was a fact that could be checked, but was a relatively minor point in a series of debates in which both candidates have been accused of stretching the truth.

During halftime at Clemson’s football game last Saturday, which was designated Military Appreciation Day, a group of fifty South Carolina residents took the Oath of Enlistment into the Armed Forces. One portion of the oath reads, “I will obey the orders of the President of the United States.” A number of students, many of them wearing “Tigers for Romney” stickers, booed at those words. One professor commented via Facebook that he was not surprised to hear booing when the incumbent president was mentioned publicly a few weeks before a heated election. Another felt it was the office of President that was being referred to and not the individual who holds it at the moment and thus found the booing extremely disrespectful. (Obama’s name was not mentioned.) A posting on Daily Kos has brought national attention to the issue and has elicited hundreds of comments, many of them condemning South Carolina’s racism. At the very least, those who booed should have considered the context of their response to the reference to the president or the President. It was not a political rally but a ceremony in which young men and women were committing to serving their country. My sister, who was in college during the Vietnam War, had turned to me during pre-game festivities to comment on how enthusiastic the students were in their support of all of the military personnel, past and present, who were being honored, so different from student response to the military in her college days. And then the booing came. The incident illustrates how a single word can be politicized, in this case in an embarrassing way.

Maybe it’s a good thing for people to realize the power that words have, for good or ill. When our students write arguments, it’s essential.


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