Saturday, October 4, 2008

Pundit Plays Linguist. Fails.

(screen shot of a guest at McCain's BBQ. Video here)

Political pundits almost pathologically believe they have greater influence than they really do. Case in point, Talking Points Memo's editor and publisher and chief blogger Josh Marshal has been trying to promote the use of the phrase "ride the swing" as a metaphor for the case when "a reporter who has gotten way too cozy with a politician and has had their supposed objectivity affected" (original explanation here). The phrase refers to a posh BBQ that McCain hosted at one of his Arizona ranches where journalists were treated to a very comfy social experience that bordered on bribery (click on "video here" below the pic). As far as I can tell, Marshal is the primary pusher of the phrase and its most frequent user (a couple other examples here and here).

I suspect Marshal's linguistic campaign will fail. Attempts by a single person to explicitly promote the use of a new metaphor are rarely successful. This is not how language works. Successful new coinages are generally adopted less self-consciously. The process is not well understood, but examples like Marshal's are few and far between. Additionally, there are already several good metaphors for related frames, such as "drank the cool-aid" (which has equally obscure origins involving jungles and religious cults). Not sure we need a new one just for journalists.

(HT to my colleague CC for bringing this to my attention. At first, we had no clue what this metaphor referred to, and as such we literally couldn't understand what it was meant to evoke. CC did some blogger detective work and discovered its origin).

4 comments:

Roelant said...

Some actually do succeed: listen to Malcolm Gladwell as he talks about his attempts to deliberately get some phrases out in the open: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=348

(it's the last act in that show)

nascardaughter said...

Do you hang out on political blogs much? 'Cause it seems like it's already a pretty successful metaphor in the liberal blogosphere to me.

Chris said...

roelant, I'll take a look.

nascardaughter, I can see that the phrase has been used by a variety of pundits, to be sure. But the real test will be 2012. Will pundits still be using it when the McCain BBQ has faded into memory. The "drank the cool aid" metaphor has outlived it original referent by decades now, and is still strong. Time will tell.

Forrest said...

While the phenomenon ( coining new phrases, a form of linguistic innovation ) isn't well understood, Gladwell sheds a bit of light on what may be going on in The Tipping Point. The "some people have far more social connections, and more clout with them" theory at least makes sense on an intuitive level. ( But then so does geocentricity, and "heavy things fall faster thanks to gravity". )

Somebody once tried to tell me "drink the cool aid" doesn't refer to Jim Jones, but to Ken Kesey, as a reference to The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, and "on the bus." That's pretty obviously not the case ... but I think the rule for phrases is that you've made it once there's confusion about your origin?