D) A lowly scrap of paper that may decide who will be the next leader of the free world?
All four answers are correct. Chad is also the name of a couple of major league baseball players and one half of a British pop-singing duo from the ’60s.
But if you guessed “D,” you are informed enough to understand the vote counting process in Florida.
Politicians are tossing the term “chad” around as if everyone were familiar with the word. Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore’s campaign adviser, George Mitchell, is among them.
“You can run those machine ballots through five times and you’ll get five different totals because the chads fall off with each count,” he said, explaining on “Fox News Sunday” the reason he believes ballots in Florida should be recounted by hand.
But Mitchell’s use of “chads” betrayed his own lack of familiarity with the word. “Chad is its own plural,” said Paul J.J. Payack, president and CEO of yourdictionary.com, which is based in California.
The Web site www.yourdictionary.com defines the word as follows:
1. The confetti-like scrap punched out of cards or paper tape (also “chaff,” “computer confetti” or “keypunch droppings”).
2. The perforated strips on the edge of paper for sprocket feed printers after they have been separated from the printed portion (also “perf,” “perfory,” or “snaf”).
Etymology: Possibly from the last name of the inventor of the Chadless cardpunch, which cut U-shapes in punch cards, rather than open circles or rectangles. (The U’s formed holes when folded back.)
“Chad” would then be a back-formation from “Chadless” misunderstood: If the Chadless keypunches don’t produce it, other keypunches must produce “chad.”
The word appears to have entered the national lexicon in the late 1940s, around the time people began to refer to “bug” as a computer glitch after a researcher blamed a moth among a group of vacuum tubes for affecting ENIAC, the primitive computer powered by thousands of such tubes, said Payack. That was also about the time when IBM began using punch cards that warned users not to fold, spindle or mutilate.
In Florida, vote-counters may have wished for a “chadometer” to measure whether a bit of chad is sufficiently dislodged to qualify it as “dangling.”
When the hand recount began in Palm Beach County, the canvassing board there said it would count a vote if any of the corners of the chad were punched.
The board then decided that they would instead use the “sunlight test” — if they could see sun through an indentation, it would count.
About a quarter of the way through the counting, however, a board member determined that the light test was flawed and told the other members to go back to the first test.
According to county spokesman Bob Nichols, there are five types of chad.
Ones that count:
• Hanging door — one corner hanging off
• Swinging door — two corners hanging off
• Tri-chad — three corners hanging off
Chads that don’t count:
• Pregnant — bulges, but not punched through
• Dimple — simple indentation
San Francisco. July 24, 2011 — We first saw the story, 15 Wonderful Words With No English Equivalent, on the MentalFloss outlet (a genuinely interesting site for esoterica lovers), compiled by Bill DeMain. His attribution states that “many of the words above can be found in BBC researcher Adam Jacot de Boinod’s book ‘The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World.”
In the last few days we have tracked it thousands of times around the English speaking world, which now happens to encompass the globe. We are intrigued by the idea that there, indeed, might be no equivalent English words or phrases for these terms.
After all there are as of today, July 24th, 2011 the Global language Monitor calculates that there are approximately 1,010,649.7 words in the English language. (The language gains a new word every ninety-eight minutes, hence the, we admit, totally extraneous decimal point.)
So here’s the challenge to lovers of the language. Do these 15 Wonderful Words Actually Have No English Equivalent?
Send us your suggestions to: 15WonderfulWords@LanguageMonitor.com, and we will publish what our readers come up with.
The Global Language Monitor estimates that there are currently 1,009,753 words in the English language. Despite this large lexicon, many nuances of human experience still leave us tongue-tied. And that’s why sometimes it’s necessary to turn to other languages to find le mot juste. Here are fifteen foreign words with no direct English equivalent.
1. Zhaghzhagh (Persian)
The chattering of teeth from the cold or from rage.
2. Yuputka (Ulwa)
A word made for walking in the woods at night, it’s the phantom sensation of something crawling on your skin.
3. Slampadato (Italian)
Addicted to the infra-red glow of tanning salons? This word describes you.
4. Luftmensch (Yiddish)
There are several Yiddish words to describe social misfits. This one is for an impractical dreamer with no business sense. Literally, air person.
5. Iktsuarpok (Inuit)
You know that feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’re there yet? This is the word for it.
6. Cotisuelto (Caribbean Spanish)
A word that would aptly describe the prevailing fashion trend among American men under 40, it means one who wears the shirt tail outside of his trousers.
7. Pana Po’o (Hawaiian)
“Hmm, now where did I leave those keys?” he said, pana po’oing. It means to scratch your head in order to help you remember something you’ve forgotten.
8. Gumusservi (Turkish)
Meteorologists can be poets in Turkey with words like this at their disposal. It means moonlight shining on water.
9. Vybafnout (Czech)
A word tailor-made for annoying older brothers—it means to jump out and say boo.
10. Mencolek (Indonesian)
You know that old trick where you tap someone lightly on the opposite shoulder from behind to fool them? The Indonesians have a word for it.
11. Faamiti (Samoan)
To make a squeaking sound by sucking air past the lips in order to gain the attention of a dog or child.
12. Glas wen (Welsh)
A smile that is insincere or mocking. Literally, a blue smile.
13. Bakku-shan (Japanese)
The experience of seeing a woman who appears pretty from behind but not from the front.
14. Boketto (Japanese)
It’s nice to know that the Japanese think enough of the act of gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking to give it a name.
As Summer Blockbuster Season Peaks, a Look Back at the Top Hollywords from 2010
8th Annual Global Survey by the Global Language Monitor
Austin, Texas. July 12, 2011. As summer blockbuster season peaks, a look back at the top words from the movies that influenced the English language from 2010.
For the first time a single word representative of a number of the year’s blockbusters, Grit, tops the list of Hollywords as named by the Global Language Monitor. Grit topped arrogance, abdicate, stammer, and madness. Dream-stealers, nerds, Borogoves, shard, and 3-D rounded out the top ten.
“For the first time a single word was representative of a number of the year’s Oscar winning films,” said Paul JJ Payack, president and chief word analyst for the Global Language Monitor, “According to Webster’s the term, grit, has the following senses that applied to these films: firmness, pluck, gritty (as in soot-covered), stubborn, indomitable spirit, courageous, and brave perseverance.”
The Top Hollywords of the 2010 season with the largest impact on the English language with commentary follow.
1. The word grit has been defined in a number of ways by Webster that reflects many of the virtues of this year’s nominees.
Grit is, of course, from the title of Best Picture nominee True Grit, as exemplified by the character’s played by Jeff Bridges (firmness) and Hailee Steinfeld (pluck).
The action of The Fighter took place against the backdrop of one of the nation’s fabled gritty cities: Lowell, Massachusetts into which Mark Wahlberg, Melissa Leo and Christian Bale expertly blended.
127 Hours portrayed the stubborn courage of a man driven to desperate acts to ensure his survival.
The accidental and courageous king and his indomitable tutor as portrayed by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech.
Woody’s brave perseverance to keep his fellow toys together in Toy Story 3.
2. Arrogance – Deftly depicted in both The Social Network and Inside Job.
3. Abdicate – Another generation learns of cowardice in high places, again; this time it’s found in the British Royal Family as depicted in The King’s Speech.
4. Stammer and/or Stutter – If you paid close attention you might actually notice the difference between a stammer and a stutter in Colin Firth’s dialogue.
5. Madness – We are told there is no such thing as ‘madness’ in the 21st century, but whatever we may call it, in the Black Swan Natalie Portman’s creates a dramatic portrait of the descent into it.
6. Dream-Stealers – (and dream shapers and sowers). Evidently, new career options for the 21st century endless-recession economy introduced to us by Leonardo DiCaprio and his film Inception. The timid need not apply.
7. Nerd – Once more, we are fascinated by the rise of the nerd in The Social Network … though most nerds never overcome their nerdness, and only the most rare of exceptions is able to cash in on it.
8. Borogoves — Alice in Wonderland sheds a bit of light on the ‘borogoves’. As you know, they were all ‘mimsy’ in Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s nonsense poem, Jabberwocky.
9. Shard – Though widely confused with the word ‘shred’ as in a ‘shred of truth’, Harry Potter finds a mirror shard, in which he catches a glimpse of a blue eye and keeps it for later use. From Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1.
10. 3D CGI – (Three-dimensional, Computer-generated imagery) Five of the top ten grossing films of 2010 were CGI-based 3D, accumulating some $1.3B domestically: Toy Story 3, Despicable Me, Shrek Forever After, How to Train Your Dragon, and Tangled. Whether this is a transformative trend or a passing fad has yet to be determined.
The Global Language Monitor uses a proprietary algorithm, the Predictive Quantities Indicator (PQI) to track the frequency of words and phrases in the global print and electronic media, on the Internet, throughout the Blogosphere, as well as accessing proprietary databases. The PQI is a weighted Index, factoring in: long-term trends, short-term changes, momentum, and velocity.
Previous Top HollyWord Winners include:
2009 ‘Pandora’ from Avatar
2008 ‘Jai Ho!’ Literally ‘Let there be Victory’ in Hindi from Slumdog Millionaire
2007 “Call it, Friendo,” from No Country for Old Men
2006 ‘High Five!!! Its sexy time!’ from Borat!
2005 ‘Brokeback’ from Brokeback Mountain
2004 “Pinot” from Sideways
2003 ‘Wardrobe malfunction’ from Super Bowl XXXVIII
GLM Comment : We think not. But perhaps an unexpected ability to fashion an English Sentence.
One week ago today, the MoJo DC bureau was consumed by the arrival of Sarah Palin’s emails covering the first half of her half-term as Alaska’s governor. As David Corn detailed, there were plenty of interesting discoveries—a less than chilly attitude toward climate change, for instance, and a sometimes obsessive attitude toward media critics (marginal and otherwise).
While we were poring over the documents, though, Michael McLaughlin of AOL’s Weird News was taking a different approach:
AOL Weird News brought samples to two writing analysts who independently evaluated 24,000 pages of the former governor’s emails. They came back in agreement that Palin composed her messages at an [8.5] level, an excellent score for a chief executive, they said…
“She’s very concise. She gives clear orders. Her sentences and punctuations are logical,” Payack said. “She has much more of a disciplined mind than she’s given credit for.”
Although it’s like comparing apples to oranges, Payack said that famous speeches like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a 9.1 and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” oration rated a 8.8 on the scale.
Having read several thousand pages of the Palin emails, I think apples and oranges might be a bit of an understatement here. But there’s also a bit of truth there: Palin’s written communications are noticeably more coherent than her efforts to explain herself verbally (witness: Paul Revere-gate).
Sarah Palin’s Emails Written At 8th Grade Level — Better Than Some CEOs
The huge cache of Sarah Palin’s emails released Friday offered not only a chance to see what she was writing about during her uncompleted term as Alaska’s governor, but also an opportunity to see how well she writes.
AOL Weird News brought samples to two writing analysts who independently evaluated 24,000 pages of the former governor’s emails. They came back in agreement that Palin composed her messages at an eighth-grade level, an excellent score for a chief executive, they said.
“However, the emails say something else. Ms. Palin writes emails on her Blackberry at a grade level of 8.5.
“If she were a student and showing me her work, I’d say ‘It’s fine, clear writing,'” he said, admitting that emails he wrote scored lower than Palin’s on the widely used Flesch-Kincaid readability test.
“She came in as a solid communicator,” said Paul J.J. Payack, president of the Global Language Monitor. The emails registered as an 8.2 on his version of the test. “That’s typical for a corporate executive.”
An example of Palin’s strongest writing came on Jul. 17, 2007 in an email to Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell about the controversial Gravina Island Bridge, infamously called the “Bridge to Nowhere.”
“We cant afford it, the Feds won’t pay for it, the general populace isn’t placing it as a high priority … can you diplomatically express that?! Of course we want infrastructure — and this is NOT a “bridge to nowhere” (that is so offensive), but as it stands today with the highest-cost bridge design selected by the Ketchikan community, we need to find a lower-cost alternative [if] a bridge will be built.”
“She’s very concise. She gives clear orders. Her sentences and punctuations are logical,” Payack said. “She has much more of a disciplined mind than she’s given credit for.” [Read More.]
Study also compares Michelle Obama with the Royals
NarrativeTracker analysis of Internet, social and traditional media
AUSTIN, Texas. April 18, 2011. With less than two weeks left before the Royal Wedding on April 29th, Kate Middleton is already posting Diana-type numbers in terms of news worthiness and celebrity status on the Top Global Media sites as well as on the Internet and Social Media according to The Global Language Monitor. Previously GLM had found the soon-to-be Princess Catherine the Top Fashion Buzzword of the 2011 season, replacing the eccentric Lady Gaga.
The GLM study compared the citations of Kate Middleton with those of Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, Prince William, Prince Harry, and Camilla Parker Bowles. Michelle Obama as First Lady of the United States was included as a relevant American comparison. For the Top Global Media, the citations were measured over the last three months as well as all the archives available.
“Kate Middleton is set to eclipse Princess Di as the media star of the Royal Family,” said Paul JJ Payack, President and Chief Word Analyst of the Global Language Monitor. “In fact, Kate could surpass all Internet, Social Media, and Global Print and Electronic Media citations by the time the Royal Wedding-related stories are compiled.”
Two weeks before the Royal Wedding, Middleton’s Internet and Social Media citations, surpass all members of the Royal Family. Prince William comes in as a close second followed by Princess Diana, who died in a Paris car crash in 1997.
For Internet news citations, Middleton follows only Prince William and Prince Charles. For comparison, First Lady Michelle Obama, since she first came to notice in 2004, would rank No. 3 in Internet and Social Media citations, just ahead of Princess Diana and would rank No 4, again slightly ahead of Princess Diana in Internet news.
In the traditional Global Print and Electronic Media, Prince William and his bride-to-be, both double references to Queen Elizabeth and quadruple those to Prince Charles who would also follow Michelle Obama.
Note: Princess Di is cited in hundred of thousands of news stories even though she died before Google, social media, and smartphones existed. Even without the current media environment where the Internet, social media and the traditional media feed upon themselves as some sort cyber echo chamber, the study demonstrates the enduring legacy of Princess — some fourteen years after her death.
GLM used NarrativeTracker Technology in this study.
NarrativeTracker is based on the global discourse, providing a real-time, accurate picture of what any audience is saying about any topic, at any point in time. NarrativeTracker analyzes the Internet, the top global print and electronic media, as well as new social media sources (such as Twitter).
Media for detailed statistics, or call 1.512.815.8836.
AUSTIN, Texas December 8, 2010 (Updated) – The Global Language Monitor has announced the Top Words of 2011, yes 2011.
“Typically, we gather our top words throughout the year and rank them according to the number of citations, the size and depth of their linguistic footprint and momentum. To project possible top words for 2011, we analyzed the categories that we monitor and then choose words from each representative of various word trends,” said Paul JJ Payack, President and Chief Word Analyst of GLM. “Over the last ten years, we’ve frequently been asked the question, so this year we are providing our projections.”
The words are culled from throughout the English-speaking world, which now numbers more than 1.58 billion speakers.
Projected Top Words of 2011Rank / Word / Comments
Twenty-Eleven – The English-speaking world has finally agreed on a common designation for the year: Twenty-eleven far outstrips ‘two thousand eleven’ in the spoken language. This is welcome relief from the decade-long confusion over how to pronounce 2001, 2001, 2003, etc.
Obama-mess – David Letterman’s neologism for 2010 also works for 2011. This word is neutral. If Obama regain his magic, he escaped his Obama-mess; if his rating sinks further he continues to be engulfed by it.
Great Recession – Even the best case scenario has the economy digging out of this hole for the foreseeable future,
Palinism – Because the media needs an heir to Bushisms and Sarah Palin is the candidate of choice here.
3.0 – 2.0 has settled into the vocabulary in a thousand differing forms — Obama 2.0, Web 2.0, Lindsey Lohan 2.0, so we project 3.0 being used to ‘one-up’ the 2.0 trend.
9/11 – Next September is the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on US soil, so there is sure to be a great resurgence in use of the phrase.
Climate Change (or global warming) – Both of these phrases have been in the Top Ten for the last decade, so we see no reason the English-speaking public will abandon either or both of the phrases.
China/Chinese – The emergence of China is the Top Story of the Decade and there is little indication that is emergence on the world stage will continue in the media.
Hobbit and/or Parseltongue – The blockbuster movies of 2011 will be sure to include Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 and the Hobbit (though the Hobbit premiers on Dec. 31) are sure to spin out some word or phrase that will remain memorable to the Earthly-audience.
Spillcam is the Top Word, Anger and Rage the Top Phrase
and Chinese Leader Hu Jintao the Top Name
AUSTIN, Texas November 27, 2010 (Updated) – The Global Language Monitor has announced that Spillcam is the Top Word, Anger and Rage the Top Phrase and Chinese Leader Hu Jintao the Top Name of 2010 in its annual global survey of the English language. Spillcam was followed by Vuvuzela, the Narrative, Refudiate, and Guido. Deficit, Snowmageddon, 3-D, Shellacking and Simplexity rounded out the Top 10.
“Our top words this year come from an environmental disaster, the World Cup, political malapropisms, new senses to ancient words, a booming economic colossus, and a heroic rescue that captivated the world for days on end. This is fitting for a relentlessly growing global language that is being taken up by thousands of new speakers each and every day,” said Paul JJ Payack, President of The Global Language Monitor.
The words are culled from throughout the English-speaking world, which now numbers more than 1.58 billion speakers.
Methodology: The Global Language Monitor’s WOTY was conceived in 1999 as a way to create a cultural record of the year as reflected in the world’s current global language, English. Previous efforts were decided by small groups of academics or lexicographers; our idea was to reflect the words used by the world’s 1.5 billion English Speakers.
Accordingly, GLM monitors million of web pages on the Internet, Blogosphere, and social media in addition to over 80,000 print and electronic media sites. In this way we search for words that are the most relevant to various aspects of culture, such as world events (the rise of China, the South Asian Tsunami), politics (the election of Obama to the US Presidency), prominent deaths (Pope John Paul II, Michael Jackson), war and terror (Iraq, Afghanistan and the Terrorist Attacks on the US and London), film (Jai Ho!, Brokeback), sports (Beijing Olympics, South African World Cup), and the like. We then use our analytical engine to determine the number of citations for the words, their prominence, how quickly they are rising or falling in use, and the geographic breadth and depth (various forms of publication) of their use.
To immediately download an in-depth presentation of GLM’s algorithmic-based methodology, fill out the form on the upper left corner of this page.
To listen to “What’s My Word,” a game show developed by Austin’s NPR flagship station, KUT,to help review the top words for 2010, click here.
1. Spillcam — The BP Spillcam instantly beamed the immensity of the Gulf Spill around the world to the dismay of environmentalists, BP’s PR staff and the President.
2. Vuvuzela — Brightly colored plastic horns that first came to prominence at the South African World Cup.
3. The Narrative – Though used at least since The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845, ‘The Narrative’ has recently been gaining traction in the political arena, virtually replacing the need for a party’s platform. (Cf. to ‘truthily’.)
4. Refudiate — Conflation of “refute” and “repudiate” (un)officially coined by Sarah Palin.
5. Guido and Guidette — Hey! All things Jersey are hot, capish? (Actually, capisci in standard Italian.)
Listen to Tracking 2010’s Most-Used Words, Names And Phrases
6. Deficit – A growing and possibly intractable problem for the economies of most of the developed world.
7. Snowmagedden (and ‘Snowpocalypse’) — Portmanteau words linking ‘snow’ with ‘apocalypse’ and ‘armageddon’, used to describe the record snowfalls in the US East Coast and Northern Europe last winter.
8. 3-D — Three-dimensional (as in movies) is buffo box office this year, but 3-D is being used in new ways generally describing ‘robustness’ in products (such as toothpaste).
9. Shellacking – President Obama’s description of the ‘old-fashioned thumpin’ in George W. Bush’s words, that Democrats received in the 2010 US Mid-term elections.
10. Simplexity – The paradox of simplifying complex ideas in order to make them easier to understand, the process of which only adds to their complexity.
Also Noted: (Spoken Only) Twenty-ten: Finally, a common way to refer to the year; Obamacare (noted as one of the Top Political Buzzwords).
The Top Phrases of 2010
Rank / Phrase / Comments
1. Anger and Rage – Characterizations of the US electorate by the pundits, though closer analyses has revealed more frustration and disappointment. Also witnessed in France, Spain and Greece.
2. Climate Change – (and Global Warming) No. 1 Phrase for the first decade of the 21st century; starts out second decade at No. 2.
3. The Great Recession – The media term frequently used to describe the on-going global economic restructuring.
4. Teachable Moment – Turning any undesirable outcome into a positive opportunity by using it as an object lesson. Unfortunately, there were a plethora of teachable moments in the first year of the new decade.
5. Tea Party — An emerging political movement in the US that has upset the balance of power in the US Congress.
6. Ambush Marketing – Cashing in at an event by taking on the appearance of a sponsor of the event. Most obviously displayed at the Vancouver Winter Olympics and South Africa’s World Cup 2010.
7. Lady Gaga — Gaga, herself, became a buzzword in the global entertainment industry in 2010.
8. Man Up – This election cycle’s signature retort from the women running for office to their male opponents.
9. Pass the bill to be able to see what’s in it — Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s now infamous quip underlying the complexity of the Healthcare Reform legislation.
10. Obamamania — Notable only in it fall from grace; Obamamania now ranks at the bottom of this year’s political buzzwords.
Also Noted — Don’t Touch My Junk: One reaction to the TSA new search policies.
The Top Names of 2009
Rank / Name / Comments
1. Hu – President Hu Jintao, paramount leader of China. Rise of China was the No. 1 Story of the 1st decade of the 21st century; now Hu begins the second decade in the top spot.
2. IPad – With over eight million sold in a matter of months, the IPad is now a name on everybody’s lips. (Sorry, Steve Jobs, the IPads tests better than you.)
3. Barack Obama — President of the United States has had a tough sophomore year.
4. Chilean Coal Miners – The ordeal and heroic rescue is perhaps the top inspirational story of the year.
5. Eyjafjallajoekull – Does a name that no one can pronounce deserve a spot on a top name’s list?
6. Nancy Pelosi – Speaker of the US House of Representatives, presided over the passing of the healthcare reform bill and the decimation of her party in the Mid-term elections.
7. Sarkozy – Nicolas Paul Stéphane Sarközy de Nagy-Bocsa, the current French president, is attempting to re-define what it means to be citizen of the Republic.
8. Tea Party – Leaderless movement in US political circles, the center of much of the angst in the electorate.
9. Jersey Shore – Not quite the Cote d’Azure, The Shore, as the locals call it, is now known as a breeding ground for guidos and guidettes.
10. David Cameron and Nick Clegg – The leaders of the UK’s new coalition government.
Also Noted — Kate Middleton, recently engaged to Prince William.
Top Words of the Decade:
The Top Words of the Decade were Global Warming, 9/11, and Obama outdistance Bailout, Evacuee, and Derivative; Google, Surge, Chinglish, and Tsunami followed.
Climate Change was top phrase; Heroes was top name.
Austin, Texas, July 2, 2010. The first decade of the 21st century has witnessed a great many terrible, sad and historical events, with a few, unfortunately fleeting moments of great joy sprinkled between the dirges. We have done our best to analyze the impact of these events on the global print and electronic media as well as on the Internet, throughout the blogosphere, and now the emerging social media.
After analyzing political speeches for a decade now, as well as all 55 Presidential Inaugural Addresses and transcripts of historical interest (including Washington’s Farewell Address, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, FDR’s ‘Live in Infamy’ radio address, Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech) you would think that we had seen and heard everything by now.
However, it wasn’t until our analysis of the President’s Gulf Spill Oval Office address, that we experienced the full force of the Internet’s fury scorned.
And this for an analysis that we considered basically non-newsworthy.
President Obama had given yet another address to the nation. GLM used the same standardized, widely available, language tools that we used to name Obama’s Grant Park “Yes, we can!” victory address as one that ranked with the greatest of presidential orations. Now these same standardized, time-tested tools are being conveniently criticized as of questionable repute.
We were told that our analysis was either ‘bashing Obama’ or ‘excusing Obama’. At the same time, we were either ‘insulting the people’ or ‘insulting the President’. Finally, it was suggested that we were rather transparently calling for the President to ‘dumb down the rhetoric’ so that one and all might understand the superior intelligence of ‘his highness’. Whoa!
Apparently, many readers never got over the headline, missing the actual analysis and what the numbers told us about the speech. Our concern was that our initial headline, Obama Oil Spill Speech Echoes Elite, Aloof Ethos might be considered demeaning to the President. Wrong. It was considered demeaning to everyone on the Left and the Right.
For general information on the readability tests used by GLM, click here.
For scientific literature about readability tests, enter Flesch or readability into the ERIC database.
This past December, we encountered fierce criticism from the Chinese government dailies because we named ‘The Rise of China” as the No. 1 news story of the decade. (You can follow the narrative arc of this controversy here. ) But the criticism that accompanied the Obama Gulf Spill speech, was a good bit nastier, indeed.
Our analyses of the three preceding US Presidential elections were praised from many quarters from the New York Times to Nicholas Kristof to NPR to the worldwide media. During the preceding ten years, few alleged political motivation, or denounced the standard language-measurement tools as inherently flawed. In fact, as long as readers basically agreed with the more predictable outcomes, there were few complaints. Here were some of those results: Ross Perot scored the lowest we’ve ever recorded, John F, Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were stars, both Bushes settled in the middle of the middle school years, and Obama’s ‘Yes, we can!’ speech had nearly equivalent numbers to Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream’ speech and Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’. So far, so good. We did have a few outliers, such as Sarah Palin achieving quite a high score during her debate with Joe Biden, which was duly noted by New York Magazine and quite easy to explain.
Here’s what we attempted to communicate:
1. Obama’s speech, though deserving a ‘solid B’ did not live up to his past efforts.
2. Obama’s most well-regarded speech came in a at 7.4 grade level. This is not talking down to the American people. This is communicating clear and concisely to his audience. This is Obama at his best, communicating with a deft combination of vision, passion and rhetoric.
In fact, our headline for that effort read: Obama’s “Yes, We Can” Speech Ranked with “I have a Dream,” “Tear Down this Wall,” and JFK Inaugural. Rather high praise, indeed.
Our commentary read:
Obama’s “Yes, We Can” speech delivered Tuesday night in Chicago’s Grant Park ranked favorably in tone, tenor and rhetorical flourishes with memorable political addresses of the recent past including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, “Tear Down this Wall,” by Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address.
“As is appropriate for a forward-looking message of hope and reconciliation, words of change and hope, as well as future-related constructions dominated the address,” said Paul JJ Payack President and Chief Word Analyst of the Global Language Monitor. “Evidently, Obama is at his best at connecting with people at the 7th to 8th grade range, communicating directly to his audience using simple yet powerful rhetorical devices, such as the repetition of the cadenced phrase ‘Yes, we can’, which built to a powerful conclusion.”
Well-regarded, indeed (and well-deserved).
3. GLM and our predecessor site, yourDictionary.com have analyzed every presidential inaugural since that of George Washington. The idea was, and continues to be, to look at the presidents’ words in the total historical context of the American presidency.
In 2001, we were quoted as saying,
Our goal was to spot trends that are all to easily overlooked in the political (and all too partisan) passions of the moment” [and continued that our] analysis included patterns of word usage choices, the use of such grammatical constructions as passive voice, the length of words and sentences, the number of paragraphs, and other parameters of language to gauge the content [including] the well-regarded Flesch-Kincaid Reading Scale.
4. The use of Industry-standard language analytics. The Fogg Index, the Flesch Test, the Flesch-Kinkaid Reading Scale, and many others, are used in all forms of publishing from technical manuals to ensuring proper comprehension levels for textbooks used for various ages and classes. This has been true for more than fifty years.
The reason we choose to use the standard tests and analytical tools was a simple one: to enable the same set of measurements over any period of time. And also that these analyses could be replicated by scholars and historians and journalists the world over.
5. We use our proprietary tool, the Predictive Quantities Indicator or PQI to measure media analytics, narrative tracking, and TrendTopper Media Buzz, as such we do not use the PQI for this task.
By the Way, here are a few historical precedents;
Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 — 12.0.
Lincoln-Douglas debates, 1858 — Stephen Douglas’ seven speeches averaged a 12th-grade level 11.9; Lincoln’s averaged 11.2.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration of war in December 1941 — 11.5.
Nixon-Kennedy Debates, 1960 — The first nationally televised debates: Kennedy, 9.6 ; Nixon, 9.1.
If the Gulf oil spill is a national tragedy, the arguments over President Obama’s response to it have descended into a national farce. When former law professors go looking for “ass to kick,” they end up looking like the eponymous hero of Kickass, a nerdy kid copying moves he’s seen in comic books. The difference is that the fictional Kickass was ennobled by failure, which, sadly, is not the kind of outcome open to the President of the United States in matters of national importance.
Obama’s mistake was to respond to the Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots of punditry. The country didn’t want Spock at the helm during environmental armageddon, they protested; the situation demanded a theatrically-appropriate response–as if the presidency was the background music to the movie of our lives, rousing in adversity, compassionate in suffering, a boom box of linguistic effects.
If style is the image of character, you cannot go from the calmest, most judicious intellectual in the room to a Schwarzenegger character in leather trousers and expect to be perceived as authentic. This is why responding to his critics was the wrong thing to do. By following their lame advice, by trying to be someone he isn’t, Obama sounded bathetic.
All of this is an object lesson in how democracy isn’t helped by the media. Just as an analysis of the Katrina response shows that it was a complex systematic failure of government and not a simple fumble by George W. Bush and “heck of a job” Brownie, the Gulf oil spill is not really in the league of a car wreck caused by distracted texting. The very intractability of the problem demands openness, an admission of complexity and a detailed description of solutions that are being pursued. And yet, according to one manufacturer of conventional wisdom, the problem was not that Obama’s White House address on the spill was too simple or vague, it was that it wasn’t simple enough. As CNN reported:
“Obama’s speech may have gone over the heads of many in his audience, according to an analysis of the 18-minute talk released Wednesday by Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor. Tuesday night’s speech from the Oval Office of the White House was written to a 9.8 grade level, said Payack, who gave Obama a ‘solid B.’ His Austin, Texas-based company analyzes and catalogues trends in word usage and word choice and their impact on culture.”
The president’s 19.8 words per sentence apparently “added some difficulty for his target audience.” But 19.8 words is well within the breath of television’s cutthroat culture of political sound bites, which now stands at seven seconds. Indeed, as Elvin T. Lim notes in his brilliant historical and linguistic analysis of presidential rhetoric, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, the average presidential sentence in recent years (as defined by speeches) has ranged from 15 to 20 words, well within the assumed attention span of the presumptive television viewer.
But now, even this is apparently too difficult for most Americans to follow. It gets worse. Take the following sentence from the President’s speech, “That is why just after the rig sank, I assembled a team of our nation’s best scientists and engineers to tackle this challenge–a team led by Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and our nation’s Secretary of Energy.” According to Payack, this is the kind of phrasing that makes the President seem “aloof and out of touch.” It’s too professorial, too academic and not “ordinary enough.” Perhaps the President should just have tweeted “I got smart folks fixin’ to fix the oil spill” and let everyone go back to their regular broadcast fare or communicating with each other in grunts and clicks.