Politicians and Humpty Dumpty

By Maeve Maddox

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’ (Through the Looking-Glass – Chapter Six)

I was in Arkansas the year that then-governor Mike Huckabee refused to sign a tornado relief bill because he objected to the conventional term act of God:

act of God – “uncontrollable natural force” first recorded 1882. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

On December 31, 2007. the Los Angeles Times reminded the nation of this incident in an article that has stirred up a lot of blog commentary.

In order to mitigate fears that the Baptist presidential hopeful would permit his religious beliefs to interfere with decisions of state, Huckabee apologists have come to his defense. They argue that Huckabee merely wanted to change the terminology so that insurance companies would pay.

According to a NY Times story dated March 21, 1997, however, Huckabee refused to sign the bill because doing so would violate his conscience:

Mr. Huckabee said that signing the legislation ”would be violating my own conscience” inasmuch as it described ”a destructive and deadly force as being ‘an act of God.’ ” Mr. Huckabee…suggested that the phrase ”acts of God” be changed to ”natural disasters.”

All language is metaphor. The word is not the thing. The map is not the territory. I am reading a book, livre, boek, Buch, biblio, libro, livro.

A rose by any name…

Words are labels. They “mean” what we say they mean. Changing acts of God to natural disasters will not alter the fact that insurance companies don’t want to pay for damages caused by tornadoes, hurricanes, or floods.

When a word or expression becomes a shibboleth, people suffer.

shibboleth 1382, the Heb. word shibboleth “flood, stream,” also “ear of corn,” in Judges xii:4-6. It was the password used by the Gileadites to distinguish their own men from fleeing Ephraimites, because Ephraimites could not pronounce the -sh- sound…A similar test-word was cicera “chick pease,” used by the Italians to identify the French (who could not pronounce it correctly) during the massacre called the Sicilian Vespers (1282). — (Online Etymology Dictionary)

The consequence of the “wrong” pronunciation for both Ephraimites and French was death.

TIP: Relieve the tedium of political coverage during the next ten months. Keep a notebook by your TV chair. Collect words and expressions. Record those that upset the candidates, and the words they all use, but which carry no specific meaning and can therefore mean anything they want them to. Remember Humpty Dumpty.

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6 Responses to “Politicians and Humpty Dumpty”

  • nancy

    I was enjoying the daily writing tips until this one came out which seems more about the author’s political views and opinions than it does about effective writing. Shame on you for trying to add personal political commentary to what might have been useful material.

  • Daniel Scocco

    Nancy, reading through the post I cannot really see Maeve’s political opinions, but rather a single example where an “expression” played an important role.

    I am not in the U.S., for instance, and I don’t even know if the mentioned politician is from right or left. Even if I knew, said example was merely illustrative.

    If you need confirmation though, this blog is and will remain apolitical.

  • Maeve

    Nancy,
    I’m sorry that you were offended by this post. I read it over carefully before submitting it and, like Daniel, I felt it was about language, not politics.
    The fact is that candidates for political office are very sensitive to the connotations of language. Deliberate word choice intended to persuade voters–rhetoric–is part of the political package.

    Never fear, I’ll be scrutinizing the language of all the candidates and will comment on any examples of their rhetoric that I find noteworthy.

  • Ellen

    This is a terrific post and it is all about language AND the way it is sometimes used to manipulate opinion. I’m e-mailing this post to my writing friends of all political stripes.

    I don’t want to live in a world where readers get bent when writers employ their intellect in a discerning way, particularly when they use facts and documented history as examples.

    Nancy, get over it.

    Maeve, please, please don’t homogenize your writing.

  • Cory

    It doesn’t seem like a political opinions blog to me. No need to shame anyone!

  • Jaguar

    That was interesting about “shibboleth” and “chick pease”. (Should it be “chick peas”?) I once heard that “lollapalooza” was a password used by the allies in WW2, because the Japanese had a hard time pronouncing the -l- sound.

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