National party conventions are really about two things: painting the candidate you are supporting in the best possible light, and engaging in attacks on the opposition. There was plenty of both during the just-concluded Republican National Convention in Cleveland, but the interesting vocabulary tends to be used when speakers are on the attack. Even when the context doesn't indicate a politician in a take-no-prisoners mode, they often use words that are full of connotations to paint a picture or to rouse the crowd. (See our full list of vocabulary words from the Republican National Convention here.)
Take Senator Ted Cruz and his use of the word rancor. Cruz, who also quoted Victor Hugo's Les Miserables in his speech ("To die of love is to live by it"), used the word rancor in the middle of an impassioned plea to put an an end to forces that separate us: "We stand here tonight a nation divided. Partisan rancor, anger, even hatred are tearing America apart." Rancor is bitterness, resentment. It is hard to have a rancorous argument with someone you've just met; you have to know each other well, and have had time for grudges to form and fester. The word rancor itself is evocative of the yelling and bitterness Cruz is describing. Rancor's linguistic roots play to the senses even more. Rancor comes from a Late Latin word rancorem, which meant "rancidness, a stinking smell." Even when begging for peace, Senator Cruz used a word that brings to mind just how bad things have gotten between political parties.
Another word that comes from a root meaning "having a stinking smell, noxious" is deleterious (from Greek deleterios). Deleterious was used by Dr. Ben Carson to describe the effect Hillary Clinton's hypothetical Supreme Court nominees would have on the court. Since Supreme Court justices serve lifetime appointments, they can have a very significant impact, and it can be quite frustrating if they continue to vote in ways that run against your own views. Deleterious just means causing harm or damage, so Dr. Carson has come up with an especially interesting way to say that Secretary Clinton would be bad at something. That your opponent is bad, was obviously a theme throughout the week-long convention, but rarely was it put so delicately as to say that Clinton's choices would have a "deleterious effect."
Dr. Ben Carson also used a very powerful word when describing his views on the runaway size of government. Government has gotten so huge, according to Carson, that "we the people would not be paying attention and it would allow the government to grow, to expand, and to metastasize and to try to rule us." Metastasize is a very serious word that one doesn't normally hear unless one is getting bad news from an oncologist. Metastasizing cells invade normal tissue and take over, and often the spread cannot be stopped. This image of "metastasizing government" seeping into every aspect of our lives as a force for evil is very powerful at communicating Dr. Carson's point. It's impossible to know whether he chose this particular metaphor because he is a retired brain surgeon, but the choice of words is certainly more powerful and apt if you know this bit of his history.
One mini-theme of the convention was that Donald Trump can't stand when things are done incorrectly, and that this is part of what inspired him to run for president. Four of his children spoke at the convention, and they drove home this idea using words to characterize the shoddy work Donald Trump sees all around him -- words like incompetence, botch and ineptitude. Of these three words, ineptitude is probably the harshest judgement. One might be able to be skilled and show incompetence on a given occasion, and the same skilled worker can certainly botch a particular job, but ineptitude is a serious indictment.
Ineptitude says that one is really not qualified or skilled, almost to a bumbling degree. In his speech to the convention, Eric Trump turned this word from a diagnosis of being unqualified to an accusation with dire consequences: "I see in his [Donald Trump's] eyes the sadness of innocent lives lost...cut short by illegal immigrants in sanctuary cities, victims of a revolving door of government ineptitude and corruption that leaves innocent Americans defenseless." Eric Trump highlighted the potential ramifications of being poor at and unfit for your job in his use of ineptitude and in the process summed up what he believes this election is about.
Harsh inthan a charge of general ineptitude in the world at large was Rudy Giuliani's contention that Secretary Clinton's behavior during the Benghazi incident amounted to dereliction of duty: "Her dereliction of duty and failure to keep her people safe played a major role in the horrific Islamic terrorist murders on September 11-12, 2012 in Benghazi which claimed the lives of four brave Americans..."
"Dereliction of duty" has become a phrase on its own, which means "failure" but it can also have the sense of "willful negligence." To assert that it is not just one's judgement is flawed, but rather that one abandons on purpose the people you send into harm's way is a serious charge that questions not only Secretary Clinton's decisions but her mettle as well.
On a similar but less harsh note, Republican Vice-Presidential nominee and Governor of Indiana Mike Pence used the word discerning to say that he prayed for "a wise and discerning heart." To discern is to "separate out, to distinguish" and has usually involved the five senses. In certain contexts, however, discernment has taken on a meaning of being shown the right way in the absence of judgement or direct perception by the senses. Mike Pence is praying for guidance to be shown the right way, the right thing to do, when normal use of his senses is not enough to give him the answer.
The most inventive speakers at the Republican National Convention found new ways of saying what they knew the crowd was longing to hear -- smart takedowns of the opposition. The Democratic National Convention is next week, when the Democrats have the opportunity to punch back at the Republicans using their cleverest vocabulary. After these slugfests, we may join Mike Pence in hoping for a wise and discerning heart, because then we will have to choose a president!
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