When it comes to public language, we live in the era of the false comparison. I wrote that sentence in 2011, and it still stands.
I want to revisit that charge in the light of President Donald Trump’s assertion that recent actions against him amount to a “lynching.” Condemning the Democrats’ move to impeach him, the president tweeted:
“All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here — a lynching. But we will WIN!”
By now we are familiar with Trump’s rhetorical style. Whether he is telling lies or truths, or something in between, he is prone to overstatement. That tendency can be detected above in his uppercase WIN, followed by an exclaimer.
All members of all political parties do some of that, some of the time. Trump has made it the hallmark of his political style. He is Trump the Stumper. Insulter-in-Chief. The pro-wrestling promoter. The carnival barker. The pitchman. To use a rhetorical term, Trump is the supreme dysphemist.
I learned the word “dysphemism” not long ago. It is the opposite of the more common word “euphemism.” Each involves the substitution of a harsher or softer term for a neutral term.
Let’s say I am writing that a relative “died.” I could say that he “passed away,” or “went home,” or grandiloquently “climbed the Golden Staircase.” Those are euphemisms.
But if I say he “kicked the bucket,” or is “pushing up daisies” or — gruesomely — that he is now “worm food,” I have crossed into the land of dysphemism.
The dictionary suggests these examples: My car is a “heap.” This butter is “axle grease.” My grandmother is the “old bag.”
After World War II, George Orwell wrote an essay, now famous, titled “Politics and the English Language.” He argued that language corruption leads to political corruption, and vice versa. His most compelling examples were euphemistic:
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism…. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.”
I have no data, no content analysis, to confirm this, but Trump seems more inclined toward dysphemism than euphemism. Calling immigrants or refugees “criminal aliens.” Calling information that he doesn’t like “fake news.” Calling reporters “enemies of the people.” Calling investigations “witch hunts.” A committee hearing is part of a “coup.” His critics are “traitors.” He is a victim of a “lynching.”
Trump does use softer language, of course, and it often comes in response to criticism of specific actions or policies. But these tend toward overstatement as well. The crowd was the biggest, this person who likes him is the greatest, his controversial phone call was perfect.
The word “lynch” mostly likely derives from the bad work of an 1820 American vigilante named William Lynch. Trump’s use of the term sparked condemnation, followed by explanations from the president’s supporters that he was not trying to compare his political predicament to what African-Americans suffered during the days of slavery and Jim Crow.
I get that. He didn’t mean it. But he said it. And because of his status alone, he bears responsibility for saying it. All of us bear responsibility for our words, especially our analogies and comparisons. The more public the person, the more power a person has, the greater the responsibility to not misuse the language. Trump does not get a pass because highfalutin’ language distinctions are not his bag. Others could help him if he wanted help. He seems to feel safer in a political world where the bar for language to be considered offensive is very, very high.
In my 2011 essay I revisited the 1991 Senate hearing that confirmed Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court. Thomas was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill. The testimony was lurid, the debate contentious. Thomas complained, “This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.”
I argued with others after 9/11 that President George Bush should not call an American war effort in the Middle East a “crusade.” (To his credit, he stopped.) On other similar topics, I wrote: “I can blow the whistle at efforts to nickname a football team ‘the Lynch Mob,’ just because a star player is named John Lynch. If the team plays horribly, I’ll holler if a coach characterizes the botched effort as ‘an abortion.’ An act of arson – even against a house of worship – does not qualify … as a ‘Holocaust.’”
I cited Sarah Palin’s uninformed use of the term “blood libel” in a political argument. I highlighted how Hank Williams Jr. lost his job after comparing President Barrack Obama to Hitler, something that happens eventually to all sitting presidents. And I argued that when Bryant Gumbel described NBA Commissioner David Stern as a “plantation overseer,” he, too, was practicing the dark art of the false comparison.
True comparison – whether it comes as analogy, metaphor or simile – helps us see old things in new ways. Or it helps us understand something new and strange by holding it up against something familiar. Even kids can do this, as when our then-7-year-old daughter Emily woke up to tell us that she “had a movie” — that is, a dream.
Let’s all use this brief moment, when we will argue about the word “lynching,” and recommit ourselves as public writers to the responsible and creative use of language, calling out language malpractice when it really matters.
Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter for four decades. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.