I read a story in my childhood that I have forgotten. I only have some vague notion that someone in the story traveled to a former British colony and talked to some relic from the past that had learned English from old films, and without any other influence the rest of her life, she still had these archaic phrases. I have been amusing myself with this idea for many years: What if someone learned English from hip hop, old westerns or classic British drama? I lived for a short period in Little Rock and remember talking to some people I encountered on my walks in the neighbourhood. It might still be possible to use phrases like exceedingly agreeable or a most amiable gentleman, but I have a feeling people would find it just a bit strange. I think I am a little more like Harry Callahan AKA Dirty Harry. In the first case the others might drop dead from a “laughter induced heart attack” and in the second example I would probbaly find myself more saintlike than I care for.
I have been thinking about the US race for The White House in recent weeks. What if I learned English from reading the news? I would learn some unusual words, but also some hopelessly outdated ones. These are some of the more interesting ones.
When you use a prefix in front of a word it should be possible to use the same word without it, shouldn’t it? Yet, I am pretty certain that I have never heard the word evitable being used. It is fortunate for us word lovers that the people working in the dictionary Merriam Webster like to pay attention to details. They have discovered that BBC News Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have all used the word evitable on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump the past year. It means “capable of being avoided”, and if Bernie Sanders continues his performances from Iowa and New Hampshire, the former first lady is once again an evitable candidate.
It’s sad, but I believe it’s true nonetheless. Decent people don’t get to accomplish much in politics, and they certainly don’t get re-elected. I admire Jimmy Carter, just as much for his career after he was forced to leave The White House as for the job he did while in office. He is still working and talked in the British Parliament just a couple of weeks ago. He used another word I haven’t come across before, malleable. He surprised everyone by giving what some mistook for support of Donald Trump. Jimmy Carter was asked about who he preferred between Trump and Cruz. This is what Carter said:
“Trump has proven already that he’s completely malleable. I don’t think he has any fixed opinions that he would really go to the White House and fight for.”
He also said that he found Ted Cruz to be unmalleable: “He has far right-wing policies, in my opinion, that would be pursued aggressively if and when he would become president.”
Malleable means capable of being stretched or bent into different shapes, or capable of being easily changed or influenced. I guess you can look at it in different ways. If you believe that Trump is malleable you may believe that he will be influenced by the light side of the force, but in the real world the Jedi usually doesn’t win. It could also mean that he will join the dark side, or that he will change his mind every day. That’s hardly a compliment.
It’s interesting that Ted Cruz tried to use this against Trump, so he clearly understood this to be an endorsement from a Democrat. The English language is admittedly complicated with its vast bank of synonyms and nuances, but why is there always at least one candidate that gets lost in this labyrinth? Sometimes you just have to know when to stop talking.
The English language may have a significantly higher number of words to choose from than any other language, but even people with English as their mother tongue need/choose to import words. Ted Cruz used one of my least favorite expression when Donald Trump decided to drop one of the televised debates. Cruz suggested a one-on-one mano a mano debate. I don’t know why, but I’ve never liked this particular import. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t sound necessary when there are adequate substitutions (one on one, head to head, face to face etc).
The next word surprised me because it made it look like Sarah Palin had used a dictionary, something all politicians might find useful. When she endorsed Donald Trump she used the word pussyfoot (“no more pussyfooting around”). Merriam Webster quotes the New York Tribune from 1879 to show its original meaning, but then it was the adjective pussyfooted. It means to tread or move warily or stealthily, or to refrain from committing oneself (because of fear, doubt etc). The word has expanded and is also a noun and a verb today. One could almost wonder if Palin was one of those women that found it more profitable to act stupid, as I believe Marilyn Monroe did for example. but I am not sure we have even seen flashes of something more, something that would make women proud, but of course I could be wrong.
The word evangelical also spiked in the Merriam Webster search engine after Sarah Palin’s endorsement speech, which is frankly rather disturbing. It’s one of the creepy aspects of US politics that Christianity, at least on the surface, seems to stretch all the way to The Oval Office. The Bush had some bizarre theology that he used in the war on terror, much like Donald Trump’s slogan Make America great again or the old city upon a hill (Matthew 5:14). I identify as a Christian myself, but when presidents claim that they have been endorsed by none other than God I am skeptical because there are probably thousands of different theologies to choose from. It doesn’t matter whether you represent a democracy or a dictatorship, if the end result is that you create a religious hostage situation.
That’s what the communists did as well, and I can understand why the Bolshevik revolution was referred to as the red scare. It had some scary consequences, but a social democracy isn’t anything like the Soviet Union, China, North Korea or Cuba. I have never understood why Bernie Sanders use the word socialism. I grew up in socialist Scandinavia and we have more freedom and opportunities than most people on this planet. I know enough US history to know what kind of attitudes or feelings this word evokes in the USA, however. I am not sure that one man can change this. I think Obama had the people on his side 8 years ago, but I think that door is closed now. I personally believe it would be a good thing if Americans got their American dream back. That’s what democratic socialism means. It used to be a socialist country. Rediscovering their roots may start with a dictionary, but Obama made it pretty clear that the elite needs to accept the same definitions. Using the same dictionary could make any country great.