Tag Archives: words

Political discourse and the manipulation of meaning

By Kiri Scully

We use words to express our ideas, but the words don’t always dictate our meaning – two people could be speaking the same language, using the same set of words, and meaning entirely different things.

This happens every day across the world’s media, as political leaders us powerful words to further their causes. A new study has shed light on just how pervasive this is, by looking at the way US Presidential candidates used certain words in the 2016 election.

Through semantics, linguistics researchers study meaning – they look at the logic of words, phrases and texts to decipher how they are interpreted and how they form rhetoric, using language in a way that makes it more persuasive. In a recent study, a group of researchers from Penn State University analyzed the way Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton used language in the run-up to the 2016 election in the US, showing that words and their associated meanings changed depending on who said them, and when they were being said.

The researchers conducted a series of studies that focused on the language Clinton and Trump used in speeches. What they found was a stark difference between what the candidates said and what they meant, despite the clear crossover of key terms.

For example, Trump was fond of the word “deal” and used it in a vast range of contexts. He even managed to associate the business-related word with “family” and “education,” which are not traditionally linked to it. Clinton, on the other hand, used “education” when referring to “women” and “family,” associating the word more with issues of equality and access to education.

 

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Image (CC) Pixabay 

In a series of studies, the researchers used computer algorithms to track various politically charged words that the presidential candidates used in their speeches over a three-year period, such as “minority,” “spending” and “justice.” They tracked 213 single words and 397 phrases and looked at what words appeared together to determine associations. In doing so, they found that word associations changed over time.

“In a lot of ways, it’s worse than speaking two different languages,” said lead researcher Ping Li, professor of psychology and associate director of the Institute for CyberScience. “If, for example, I speak Chinese and you don’t, you have no idea what I’m saying. But, if we’re both speaking English and you think you know what I am saying, but don’t get what I actually mean, or worse, think it means something different, it can be really confusing.”

In a study that followed, the researchers focused on 324 participants who were eligible to vote in the elections and examined their word associations using machine-learning algorithms. Interestingly, they found that they could predict each participant’s political view and which political candidate they were more likely to vote for.

“We were able to predict voters’ reported political affiliations with a relatively high degree of accuracy simply based on the way they organized a list of 50 political concepts, that is, how they grouped these concepts,” said Prof. Li. “This also suggests the complex interdependence of language, speech and culture.”

Perhaps the most interesting point of the study is that this striking semantic divide – a split in the meaning of words – seems to be growing.

“What you see is that the parties have become farther and farther apart as time goes on,” added Prof. Li. “In other words, for the same word, people tend to associate different words for them and, hence, convey different meanings.”

What do you think this research could mean for the future of dialogue? Could we reach a point where we find it impossible to discuss politics and understand each other’s points of view? And what would happen if we did?

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Word invention challenge: Week four

Week one
Week two
Week three

The more I work on this challenge, the more words seem to just pop into my head. My list of rejects is growing much faster than the daily list (maybe I’ll publish that one day too). Actually, all the listing is one of my favourite things about this challenge. I’m quite listy myself, I don’t think I’d get anything done without my ‘to do’s and ‘action’s. Every now and then a word just pops up from a jutch, sometimes even from someone else. Unfortunately, jutches are so common that the words they often produce have integrated into the language already (like snain and fantabulous).

I’ve learnt a lot about words, language and my own creativity this month. I tend to constrapolate, for example – I hold myself back by building walls that don’t need to be there. So I fought against this: a few of my new words (indlewink, okigollop) are just made up from nothing. They sound nice and are fun to say. I approached this challenge rathely – by the end of day three I already had a list of 20 words – and that’s the way I approach all my work as a wreditor (as long as there’s a deadline, of course). In fact, sometimes I’d sit so long without even blinking, let alone taking a break, that my leg muscles would constretch beyond belief. One of the many reasons I now have a ball to sit on.

I’m not sure how I feel about this challenge coming to an end. Actually, I think it’s made me realize that making up new words is fun, so I might just continue to do it (as appropriate, of course) forever. Some situnarios call for special terms (special swear words could be fun) and there are certainly words in other languages that don’t (yet) have equivalents in English (like gezellig… if only that was easy to pronounce).

For now, I’ll take a break from the formality of the challenge – I’ve made my 31 words in 31 days (and a whole lot more besides). Now it’s time to enjoy the weekend and think about what February may bring. I think today calls for a bit of wine drinking, okigolloping and chatting in Amsterdam with my lovely visitor. So farewell January, goodbye word invention challenge, and hello new perspective on language!

  1. Listy (adj.) – a person who bases actions on lists; a very organized person
  2. Rathely (adv.) – quickly, promptly; eagerly, vehemently
  3. Constrapolate (v.) – to constrict possibilities when extrapolating
  4. Jutch (v.) – to say a word that is a mix of two other words unintentionally; to switch and jumble two words (also (n.) – a word that results from jutching)
  5. Contretch (v.) – of muscles: to tense backwards; relax extremely
  6. Situnario (n.) – a situation in which a scenario takes place; usually referring to a negative or stressful event
  7. Okigollop (v.) – to eat something without thinking when someone tells you to
  8. Wreditor (n.) – a person engaged in writing and editing as a profession

Thanks to Emily for situnario – a word we invented in Australia far too many years ago.

That’s it! 31 days of January, 31 new words. What do you think? Are any of these usable? I’m planning to stick them on my wall, and will attempt to use each of them at least once this year, for real.

Have you been inspired? Have you made up any words? Share them in the comments!


Word invention challenge: Week three

It’s been almost three months now since I started full-time with Tell Lucy, and I’m getting used to the freelance life. Correction: I’m loving the freelance life. I work from home almost exclusively, give or take a meeting here or a coffee there. Aside from the (sometimes relentless) preowing of my content cats, it’s quiet in my home office, so I can hear the schwip of my pencil as I draft articles and make notes. It’s brilluous.

So when my husband suggested I look at WeWork – a shared office space for entrepreneurs and freelancers – I was slightly hesitant. Do I want to give up my lovely quiet private office? I ignored my concerns and hopped on my bike to visit the office space. It was freezing cold outside, so by the time I got there I had an unrelenting icitch and numb fingers. The WeWork sales rep – a bit of a shumpsky – asked me all sorts of questions, and was surprised at my quickcess when I told him I was in my third month of freelancing.

I cycled home via the gym, my selfivation being too strong to skip another day of training. As I spun away on the bike, I realized I had forgotten to eat all day (one of the downsides of freelancing alone at home) and suddenly felt starving. My mind wandered to thoughts of pizza, burgers and giant kapsalons… I took a big gulp of water and shook it off.

Back at the office, after relieving my hunger pangs with something far less greasy than I’d wanted, I sat back with my pencil, and listened to the schwip as I pymed. Do I want to give this up? I still don’t know.

  1. Schwip (n.) – the sound a pencil makes when it sweeps across the paper; the sound of writing with a pencil
  2. Pyme (v.) – to force a rhyme to make a poem work
  3. Quickcess (n.) – the speedy accomplishment of goals
  4. Kapsalon (n.) – a Dutch dish of fries, kebab meat and lettuce, topped with cheese and toasted
  5. Brilluous (adj.) – so splendid or magnificent that it’s difficult to believe
  6. Icitch (n.) – an itch brought on by extreme cold
  7. Selfivation (n.) – motivation brought on by a wish to take an attractive selfie
  8. Shumpsky (n.) – a laid back person; an over-familiar person

This week’s list is dedicated to my lovely office companion Zeus, who is a total shumpsky.

So are any of these brilluous? Which one’s the best?


Word invention challenge: Week two

I was beeing around in London during the second week of January this year, resting my head on various pushions around the city as I jumped from sofa to sofa. It was great to start the year visiting friends I hadn’t seen in a long time – catching up face-to-face is different to Skype or FaceTime, however regular they may be. A virtual hug is never as lovely as a real one.

But my visit wasn’t just pleasure – I was working hard, having a great time helping out on different projects and cracking through some editing. I was trying to be as googsey as possible in meetings (which had earned me my nickname many years ago); it’s always good to resolve issues and think up new approaches on the spot, without having to break to check things online.

After a few days in London I hopped on a train to Surrey for the weekend, to see my family. Unsurprisingly, there were works on the track, so the train took a (very) long route, chugging through the countryside and giving me plenty of time to tap away on my laptop. An indlewink that jumped out of the river we were passing left me temporarily blinded, so I was doubly shocked when the loudspeaker next to my ear blasted out its mundane announcement, leaving a squelp in my left ear.

Finally, after an epic journey, dinner at Dad’s was wonderful – time to rest, relax, take time out from the tapping, and enjoy some great food. Far from being smurry, dinner was delicious, so I was unimpressed when I had an escapea – a morsel of yumminess I wouldn’t be able to enjoy.

The weekend was fabulous and inspiring. I spent lots of time with Mum, and my two super smart brothers, who put all sorts of exciting ideas in my head. So watch this space for a brilliant app, and some great stories (eventually)!

  1. Pushion (n.) – a cushion you use as a pillow when you sleep on someone’s couch
  2. Googsey (adj.) – knowledgeable; like an offline Google
  3. Indlewink (n.) – light that hits you in the eye by surprise after being reflected off of an object
  4. Escapea (n.) – a piece of food that jumps off of a plate; a pea that falls on the floor
  5. Smurry (n.) – a disgusting substance, usually sloppy or liquid
  6. Bee (v.) – to hurry around being productive
  7. Squelp (n.) – the wet feeling in your ears after hearing a loud noise

Two of this week’s words were inspired by (ok, invented by) friends, so they should be recognized here. Colin, the ultimate nickname-giving media mogul who I was fortunate enough to work with a few years back, invented the word ‘googsey’ when he gave me the nickname Googsey. I think it deserves to be a word. And escapea is an old one but a great one, and a word that has been successfully integrated into our family vocabulary after Philippe used it every time a pea jumped off his plate (which was every day). This rolled out into other words (escapotato, escapecarrot etc.) but I think escapea can be applied to all food.

What do you think? Which one’s the best?


My January invention challenge: a word a day

In the second half of 2014, a good friend of mine (and a fantastic designer – check out his stuff) set out on a challenge: to master a new 3D image tool by creating a new image every day for 100 days. It was a huge success. I’ve rather over-simplified that, but the thing that really got my attention was doing something every day until you’re great at it.

WordsI’m not a designer, but one thing I’m very interested in is the design of words. Contrary to popular belief, language does evolve; we can shape the future of our words and their usage. People – me included – are hesitant to do this. But you know what? I think it’s time to get inventive with the alphabet and inject some creativity into our words. One person who can wax lyrical on this topic is the wonderful Erin McKean – lexicographer and maker of online dictionary Wordnik.

In her TED talk, Erin explains that we should invent new words because “every word is a chance to express your idea and get your meaning across. And new words grab people’s attention.” I completely agree. Creating a new word has been on my to do list (silly, I know) for years and I’ve always avoided it. Not any more.

In January 2015 I’m challenging myself to create a new word every day. I’ll be honing my word inventing skills using a variety of techniques, including the six that Erin shares in her talk:

  1. Stealing – from other languages, e.g. kumquat, ninja
  2. Compounding – squishing words together, e.g. bookworm, sandcastle
  3. Blending – squishing words together with force, e.g. brunch, electrocute
  4. Functionally shifting – verbing, e.g. friend (used to be a noun); or nouning, e.g. commercial (used to be an adjective)
  5. Back forming – creating a smaller word from an existing one, e.g. edit (came after editor) and burgle (came after burglar)
  6. Creating an acronym (acronate? Acronomize?) – making a word from the first letter of a series of words, e.g. Nasa, omg

I’m not going to challenge myself to 100 new words, and I’m not under any illusion that I’ll get good at inventing words during the course of this challenge. Instead, my aim is to break out of my avoidance and fear of word creation, and to have some fun.

So every day in January 2015 I’ll make up a new word. I’m going to need your help, so I’ll share my words on social media and ask for your opinions. I might even do a weekly vote for the best word.

Keep your eyes peeled – the first word will appear on 1 January 2015!


Enable or allow? Why you need to get it right.

There are some important things to say about enable and allow – two words involved in one of the most common mistakes made in business communication. For starters:

They are different words with different meanings.

This might seem simple enough, but it is being disregarded left, right and centre in the world of business. How many times have you seen an advert that promises ‘this new thing allows you to be happier/richer/taller than ever before’? Allows? No.

Allow is another way of saying permit. Your parents allow you to stay up late at the weekend. Your boss allows you to leave the office early.

Enable is defined as providing with the means or opportunity. A mobile phone enables you to talk on the move. A blog enables you to rant about bad grammar.

Quite different. The problem is that they get mixed up all the time. A new product doesn’t give you permission to do something. It might help you do something, or facilitate that action (i.e. enable) but it doesn’t give you permission (i.e. allow). I’ll say it again:

They are different words with different meanings.

But if it’s truly too difficult to select the appropriate word, there is an alternative – a word that is a synonym for enable and allow: let. Let means permit and facilitate – and it’s nice and simple.

So if you can’t decide whether to use enable or allow, use let instead. Maybe we should all use it anyway, it’s far more straightforward.