March 12th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; political language; oh, never mind George Lakoff after all...

The Democrats put a lot of energy into making George Lakoff and his current version of framing/reframing famous, but -- in a move with which linguists are familiar -- when the time came to actually put Lakoff's information to use, they decided to ignore it completely. Result: A new campaign slogan that has been appearing in two versions -- "Together, America can do better" and "Together America can do better."

Google either version, with or without the comma, and you'll find an abundance of material. Depending on the article you read, the slogan (a) was tested with focus groups and did extremely well, (b) was never tested with focus groups, and (c) was tested against an alternative "A strong America begins at home" slogan which came out well ahead.

How do I hate the new slogan? Let me count the ways.

1. It's not even acceptable American English. "America" is a singular noun, like "Illinois" or "Jeremy." We can tell that the Democrats are aware of that because in their alternative slogan they say "A strong America begins at home," not "Strong Americas begin at home." Using "together" in its nonslang sense -- which surely is what's intended -- "America is not together" is no more acceptable than "Illinois is not together" or "Jeremy is not together."

2. Notice what happens when you fool around with the slogan a bit syntactically....

Q: "How can America do better?"
A: "Together."

3. The most familiar American context for "can do better" is the parent/teacher conference, where the teacher explains to the parents that Jeremy has gotten a D or an F again, and says to them, solemnly, "Jeremy can do better." That sort of conference never happens when Jeremy has been getting Bs and B-pluses, with the meaning "If Jeremy tried harder, he could get As." If there is a frame lurking anywhere in the slogan, it's this Parent/Teacher Conference frame, with "America" as the [just one] D/F student who isn't trying hard enough.

4. It is so stupid. We [more than one] can do better? Lord above, I should hope so! How about starting with "We can construct a better campaign slogan than this one"?


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Final note, because my conscience will bother me if I don't add it here and you're already aware that I'm a radical. The serene imperial use of "America" as a synonym for "the United States" has always been offensive to the peoples of Central America, South America, and the non-US portion of North America. Obviously "God bless the United States" wouldn't scan as well as "God bless America"; they can understand that. But when we United States of Americans aren't singing or reciting poetry, it wouldn't hurt us to be a tad more careful.