The first presidential debate between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump was held on September 26, 2016. Whatever your political affiliation, from a vocabulary perspective it was an intriguing contest. For a list of interesting vocabulary from the debate, check here.
The linguistic highlight might very well have been Donald Trump's second use of the word braggadocious in a debate, which he first used almost exactly one year ago, at the second Republican Primary debate. At that debate the context of his use of braggadocious might have seemed like boasting, although he explicitly said he wasn't boasting:
I say not in a braggadocious way, I've made billions and billions of dollars dealing with people all over the world.
Although various tweets are suggesting sources from Mary Poppins to Dr. Seuss, braggadocious is a real, if very rare, word — an adjectival form of the more common braggadocio. Here at Vocabulary.com we have previously noted that the OED suggests that braggadocious took on its unusual form under the influence from words like ferocious, precocious and atrocious.
In this debate, Trump used braggadocious in a way that was potentially more relevant to his qualifications for being President:
I have a great company. I have a tremendous income. And the reason I say that is not in a braggadocious way. It's because it's about time that this country had somebody running it that has an idea about money.
Whether you think "having an idea about money" is an asset for a president or not, it was clear at this 2016 debate that Mr. Trump was in no uncertain terms trying to use his resume to his advantage, which is a significant change from the 2015 usage.
Braggadocious aside, the language used at the debate by both candidates emphasized the high-stakes nature of this election.
During a discussion of NATO allies paying their dues, Mr. Trump referred to Japan as a behemoth, a description which was meant to evoke how powerful Japan is as a nation. This word is taken from the Bible's description of a huge beast in the book of Job. The Hebrew word may be derived from the Egyptian pehemau, which meant "water-ox", another name for a hippopotamus.
If Mr. Trump evoked an unimaginably huge beast that "drinketh up a river"(Job 40:23), former Secretary of State Clinton also made reference to something large beyond belief, an abyss. Secretary Clinton painted a picture of the financial crisis of 2008:
Nine million people — nine million people lost their jobs. Five million people lost their homes. And $13 trillion in family wealth was wiped out. Now, we have come back from that abyss.
By using the word abyss, Secretary Clinton suggests just how difficult it was to survive the financial crisis and fix what was wrong with the economy. Abysses, are, generally speaking, next to impossible to escape. The word abyss often referred to bottomless pits, and is from the Greek a- without, and -byssos, bottom.
In describing the taxes and the "bureaucratic red tape" that some corporations who want to relocate to the United States face, Mr. Trump described those fees and that paperwork as onerous. Onerous means heavy, unwieldy and burdensome. Since Mr. Trump's point is that America should make it easier on these companies if they want to relocate, onerous is a good word to use to characterize all that these businesses must go through — some might even get lost in an abyss of that "bureaucratic red tape." Onerous evokes a weight on your back that you must carry with the hope that someday someone will lift it off you. Here, Mr. Trump is offering to do that for corporations if he becomes President.
A possibly onerous burden that Secretary Clinton had to face at the debate was Mr. Trump questioning if she has enough stamina for the job of President. Stamina today refers to strength, endurance and fortitude, whether someone has it in them to dig down deep and carry on just a little bit longer. Etymologically, however, like the behemoth perhaps being reduced in scale to a hippopotamus, things are a bit different. Stamina referred originally to threads. (Its singular, stamen, survives today as the name for the part of the flower that looks like a thread.) Threads were thought of as the basic elements of something, and from here it is not too much of a leap to think of stamina as the fundamental "vital capacities of a person." Sometimes stamina and inner strength are called "what a person is made of". This idea combines the etymological sense of the fundamental threads with the modern-day "fortitude" sense.
The first presidential debate was full of colorful language to describe the state of the country and the state of the presidential race itself. Whether it was Secretary Clinton declaring that "we're now on the precipice of having a potentially much better economy," calling up images of dangerously steep cliff faces even at the threshold of better times ahead, or Mr. Trump repeatedly declaring how much money had been squandered, or needlessly wasted, by the government, these candidates both use words to evoke passion in their audiences.
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper