The second presidential debate was held on October 9, 2016 at Washington University in St. Louis. This debate adopted a town hall format, with questions from the audience and social media as well as the moderators.
This set-up, combined with the explosive nature of the revelations on the campaign trail over this last week, promised a wild evening, and the event did not disappoint. The two candidates met at centerstage twice — they did not shake hands at the beginning of the debate, although they did briefly at the end. In between they hurled accusations at each other, talked about what they wanted to talk about regardless of the topic of the question asked, and questioned the moderator’s impartiality. One candidate even threatened to throw the other candidate in jail if elected president. A list of twenty notable words that the candidates used in between all that fighting can be found here, and below I take a look at some captivating phrases and vocabulary used during the debate.
Whether it was the effect of the surge of adrenaline one gets from speaking to an estimated 80 million people, or just the natural errors that come from speaking off the cuff, the debaters made some entertaining linguistic missteps. Hillary Clinton made a perhaps unintentional rhyme when talking about voting rights and the ability of young people to "exercise their franchise." Donald Trump produced some interesting linguistic constructions as well. At one point he said:
And I'll be a president that will turn our inner cities around and will give strength to people and will give economics to people.
No doubt Mr. Trump meant something like "economic prosperity" or "economic growth," but as it stands, Trump is advocating giving the academic discipline, the college major, of economics to the people of the inner city, perhaps by distributing textbooks.
The second interesting collocation of the night is not a mistake by Mr. Trump but an instance of an age-old literary device. Mr. Trump was talking about his Twitter and Facebook followers when he said:
I have almost 25 million people... I'm not unproud of it to be honest with you.
The second sentence in the quote above uses two negative elements to express a positive feeling. Trump saying he’s "not unproud of it" means he is proud of it without directly saying so. This is an instance of a well-known literary device called litotes. Other examples of litotes include "not bad" to mean "pretty good" or "I am not unlike my father" meaning I am like him.
Donald Trump said the following during a discussion of tax reform:
One thing I would do is get rid of carried interest. One of the greatest provisions for people like me, She could have done this [gotten rid of carried interest]...years ago. She's a United States Senator. Why didn't you change it when you were a senator? The reason you didn't is all your friends take the same advantage that I do.
Mr. Trump later referred back to this train of thought about something that Secretary Clinton’s friends also benefiting him:
All of her friends, the taxes we were talking about, and I would just get it by osmosis. She's not doing me any favors. By doing all the others favors, she's doing me favors.
Donald Trump’s uses a word here, osmosis, that isn’t often encountered outside a biology classroom. Osmosis in its technical definition involves the transfer of molecules across a membrane, but there is also a less scientific definition. The popular definition of osmosis is learning, or absorbing, things passively, not by actively participating. The method of instruction "watch and learn" is an example of learning passively or through osmosis. Of course, it is hoped that once you have "watched and learned," you will be able to actually do the task at hand.
Trump’s use of osmosis here capitalizes on the passive sense of the word. While Secretary Clinton is doing things to benefit her friends, Mr. Trump will also benefit, not by design, but as a passive by-product of the action.
Much more active is the phrase "under siege." It conjures up images of full scale war. This phrase was used three times by Donald Trump in the debate: once to describe what he sees as the endangerment of Second Amendment rights and twice in the following quote, about energy policy:
Energy is under siege by the Obama administration. Absolute siege of the EPA — is killing these energy companies and foreign companies are now coming in, buying so many of our different plants and then rejiggering the plants so that they can take care of their oil.
In Mr. Trump’s view, the Environmental Protection Agency is waging war on energy companies and these companies are under attack so often they cannot breathe or do business. Siege is a word that conjures up many vivid mental images like the ones just described, but its origins couldn’t be more different from what it came to mean. The word comes from the Old French sege, meaning "seat or throne," and ultimately from the same Latin root that gives English the word sedentary — a fancy way to say that someone is lazy and won’t get off the couch is that they "lead a sedentary lifestyle." Siege took on its military sense based on the notion that an army is "sitting down" outside a fortress.
An army sitting down outside a fortress may not need much encouragement, but sometimes everyday people need someone to incite them into action. Hillary Clinton used the word incite during the debate to accuse Donald Trump of being the match that lit the fuse:
My argument is not with his supporters. It's with him and with the hateful and divisive campaign he has run and the inciting of violence at his rallies and the very brutal kinds of comments about not just women, but all kinds of Americans.
When you incite something you are not necessarily involved in the actual act, but you are the inspiration, or the immediate cause, of that action. Secretary Clinton here is accusing Donald Trump of encouraging violence at his rallies (against anti-trump protesters) and is making a connection between the way Trump has talked about certain groups and this specifically violent speech. Incite means "to stir up, to instigate" and it is from the Latin incitare, the second element of which, citare, means "move, or excite."
The second Presidential debate will be remembered for many things. The chances are very slim that one of those things will be Donald Trump’s use of the word osmosis. Is there historical significance to the use of this word? Has it ever been used in a major debate before? Whatever the answer to these questions is, it is fascinating from both a vocabulary and a political perspective nonetheless. It’s the kind of moment that gives one pause while watching or listening to the debate, and the kind of linguistic occurrence that word lovers thrive on.
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
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