A peaceful debate? Now that’s debatable

by Mellissa Martinez

One look at the readers’ comments on page 2 of any COURIER confirms that Claremont residents are fond of debate. Topics such as water prices, school board decisions, administrator missteps, sanitation fees or plans for the Wilderness Trail can quickly become contentious. This month, however, there are wider considerations at hand.

Debate is unavoidable in our town and beyond. Facebook, Twitter and good old-fashioned radio and television are abuzz with commentary on the cringing moments, disappointing performances and stellar slights of this month’s presidential debates.

While hostile debates are now a centerpiece of modern campaigns, just 50 years ago they followed a completely different format. In the past, candidates interacted in a much more controlled manner. They were typically given 60 minutes to speak followed by a 90-minute response from the opponent. The well-known Lincoln-Douglass debates followed this format. Unscripted, throw-down, insult-laden performances as seen today were simply out of the question. Although some may prefer the less aggressive style, from an etymological perspective, modern candidates are right on track—‘debate’ is a fighting word indeed!

From de- ‘down’ and batre, ‘beat,’ the Old French debatre meant ‘to fight.’ Although it always referred to verbal sparring, the word softened over time to mean ‘a quarrel’ and ‘discussion of pros and cons.’ By the end of the 14th century, English speakers used both the noun and verb forms. Modern French maintains the cognate débattre. The fighting spirit of batre is alive and well in its descendants ‘battle,’ ‘batter,’ ‘beat’ and ‘combat.’ ‘Batter’ has many meanings, each of which stems from the concept of striking or beating. The verb ‘to batter’ and ‘batter’ of baseball are obvious, but the sweet ‘batter’ of an unbaked treat is a little more obscure. The name comes from the repetitive strikes delivered to milk, eggs and sugar in order to create the smooth mixture. Other ‘debate’ relatives include ‘abate,’ ‘an end to the fighting,’ and its derivative, ‘bate,’ ‘to reduce the intensity’ (as in bated breath).

Although battling, beating and battering are now all but expected in our presidential debates, there are the other words that make an appearance with each election season. A ‘corker’ is thought of as something that settles a debate. This word probably comes from the notion of putting a cork in a bottle. A ‘zinger,’ on the other hand, gets people riled up. The official definition of ‘zinger’ is ‘a cruel quip.’ It comes from the noun ‘zing,’ ‘a high-pitched sound,’ and was also used in baseball to mean ‘fastball.’

In the last decade, word-lovers have found a new place to get a lexical fix, word clouds. Widely used after debates and speeches, they are clusters of words that visually demonstrate the frequency of a word in a given speech or response. Reliable media sources are now in the habit of publishing these clouds online. The size and color of each item in a cloud is relative to its usage. Considered by many to be a powerful teaching and analytical tool, clouds can have different focuses. Some, for example, poll the words used by each candidate, while others collect words that were commonly posted on social media sites during a debate.

Most clouds generated from the words in the first presidential standoff underscored the widely-held belief that Obama was not at his finest—the 2 most prominent words in Romney’s first debate cloud were ‘people’ and ‘get’ while Obama’s were ‘governor’ and ‘Romney.’ In their second debate, Obama battled back with new cloud members such as ‘sure,’ ‘energy’ and ‘want,’ while Romney added  ‘going’ and ‘jobs’ to his cloud.

In the vice presidential debate, the words were a bit more colorful. In both cases, ‘people’ loomed as the largest. Ryan frequently used ‘want’ and ‘Romney,’ while Biden’s cloud included ‘friend’ and ‘malarkey.’  ‘Malarkey’ incidentally is of unknown origin. First printed in the 1920s, some suggest that it comes from an Irish surname. Gaelic Irish, however, does have the root meal with derivatives like mealliam, ‘I deceive, delude’ and meallaireacht, ‘deception, amusement.’ Some suggest that this may be the source of Biden’s old-fashioned insult.

Sadly, all candidates lost the word cloud competition when it came to public opinion. Pollsters compiled words posted during all 3 debates and they are not very flattering. Descriptors like liar, bully, rude, lackluster, disappointing and disrespectful pretty much sum up a feeling of frustration and anger that people have with unscripted, nervous politicians taking the gloves off and going for it.

Like most, I see the best in my candidate and the worst in his opponent, but perhaps both sides can agree on one thing: debates are combative—the history of the word tells us so. Since there will be no abating the upcoming battery scheduled for next Monday, may I suggest that we all grin, bear it and maybe even enjoy this last battle of words? It promises to be quite cloudy with a chance of arctic exchanges and thunderous assaults. 



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