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A president’s prerogative

by Mellissa Martinez

When teaching English to foreign students, I sometimes play clips from President Obama’s speeches. The goal is not to influence learners’ political views or even to educate them on our current state of affairs. No, my goal is simple—I want students to hear how our president frequently changes his register from relaxed to formal.

Obama peppers his stately prose with an occasional slang word, an infrequent error and a lot of relaxed pronunciation. Students are often afraid to use idioms or attempt relaxed pronunciation, so I think of these speeches as a perfect teaching tool. If the president can confidently play with grammar, word invention, pronunciation and even slang, perhaps students will be less fearful of taking chances with language.

Allow me to clarify. I’m not talking about egregious grammatical errors or inappropriate expressions but, rather, a native-like way of producing language. Last week’s State of the Union provided many examples.

Obama, like many of us, often says wanna and hafta, as in “It’s up to us to choose who we wanna be” and “we hafta keep striving.” He sometimes cuts off hard –ing endings in words like doin’ and rollin.’ He softens hard ‘t’s and pushes words together in comments like “it dudin make sense” or “if we don’act now,” and he almost always pronounces ‘for’ as fer—consider, “I’ll crisscross the country making a case fer those ideas.”

Last Tuesday, the president used edgy idioms like “screw things up,” “run onto the rocks” and “gut-wrenching.” One of my favorite dialectical distinctions of Obama’s is his love of the word ‘folks.’ Some of my favorite SOTU language tidbits of the night were: “I’ve heard some folks tryda dodge the evidence,” “make sure folks keep earnin’ higher wages down the road” and “that means helpin’ folks afford childcare.”

Before complaining about the nerve of our Commander in Chief, consider this: every president, and many prominent politicians, has brought their own dialects to the office and often taken liberties with language. In fact, the so-called errors committed by presidents have, in many cases, stood the test of time.

Thomas Jefferson is well-known for arbitrarily creating words. He was met with outrage when he came up with the word ‘belittle.’ The London Review wrote, “Belittle!—What an expression!—it may be an elegant one in Virginia, and even perhaps perfectly intelligible; but for our part, all we can do is, to guess at its meaning. For shame, Mr. Jefferson!” Interestingly, ‘belittle’ went on to be widely accepted not only in the U.S. but also across the pond. 

George W. Bush received harsh criticism in 1997 when he famously said, “they misunderestimated me.” Although I am not a great fan of GW, I secretly liked his new word because it seems to reflect a combination of being misunderstood and underestimated at the same time—a double whammy of sorts.

Dan Quale earned the lasting reputation of being a horrible speller with ‘potatoe,’ but according to Ammon Shea, author of Bad English, he was not alone. Mr. Shea reports that other presidents who published writings with grievous spelling errors include George Washington, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The well-known New York Time’s linguist William Safire took President Jimmy Carter to task on several occasions for his language choices. He once noted that city-dwellers were confused with the president’s use of the idiom “like a chicken on a June bug.” It didn’t make sense, he quipped, that a smaller June bug could be swarmed by a large chicken. He complained about Carter’s use of ‘flout’ over ‘flaunt’ and his overuse of the word ‘constraint.’

Mr. Safire also took linguistic issue with Henry Kissinger, coining the term ‘Kissingerese’ as a general category for misused words. Mr. Safire begins with pointing out the missing colon in his memoir, Henry Kissinger White House Years by writing, “I presume that’s the title; there is no colon after his name, and the byline is placed on top of what would ordinarily be the title.” Mr. Safire goes on to painstakingly dissect Mr. Kissinger’s odd use of the words ‘condominium,’ ‘hegemony,’ ‘people,’ ‘modalities,’ ‘oral note,’ ‘backchannel’ and ‘loose change,’ among others.  

For as long as presidents have been speaking publicly, people have been complaining. In Bad English, Mr. Shea points out that Ronald Reagan misused ‘hopefully;’ Roosevelt was mocked (and ignored) when he issued an executive decree to change the spelling of ‘kissed’ to kist, ‘looked’ to lookt and ‘surprise’ to surprize; and Eisenhower popularized the unwanted ‘finalize’ and mispronounced ‘nuclear’ as nukular (an annoyance also committed by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, by the way).

If I had to give an opinion on all this, it would, of course, be positive. The English of these United States is made up of a variety of regional dialects, speech patterns, hotly-debated vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, accents, errors and cleverness.

Presidents use language to exude warmth, be a part of us, or maybe just to seem like regular folks. Why shouldn’t they reflect who we really are, after all?

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