Know Your Words

Of Enemies and Intertextuality


You know Trump’s penchant for referring to the media as the “enemy of the people” is reckless (at best). [For more on why it’s reckless, see our previous post about rhetoric.] You know that adherents of ideologues throughout history have used that phrase to ignite ire in the hearts of their followers (Nazis, Marxists/Leninists, etc). But did you know there’s a word (from the discipline known as Cultural Studies) that refers to the phenomenon wherein a commonly used phrase dredges up the cultural baggage of those people and/or movements who used it in the past?

That word is intertextuality and, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory, it is defined as:

… a theory of meaning and meaning production. It holds that all texts (in the widest sense of the term – e.g., written works, films, art, etc) are composed of other, pre-existing texts held together in a state of constant interaction. It means that there are no original texts, no complete texts, and no singular texts: all texts exist within a state of partiality and inter-dependency with other texts. This is not simply a fact of language, but a necessary precondition.

The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory credits Julia Kristeva with coining the term in 1966 as a way of “denoting the interdependence of literary texts, the interdependence of any one literary text with all those that have gone before it.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: all this talk of literary terms, and texts is kind of high-brow and smacks of intellectualism. This isn’t exactly Trump’s forte. I mean, he doesn’t even read.

I agree. It seems somewhat outside his grasp. He does, however, have advisors and maybe even a speech writer on his staff (although I wouldn’t want to cop to having that job), and one or two of them are likely aware of it. If that’s the case, the President’s use of “enemy of the people” would be an example of what’s known as “obligatory intertextuality,” which occurs when “the writer deliberately invokes a comparison or association between two (or more) texts.”

And what about the audience (those hearing the president’s words)? What if they don’t understand or catch the reference to the earlier uses of the term?

In this regard, intertextuality is like the Washington Post in that, if you don’t get it, you don’t get it.* In other words, for those that understand the phrase’s cultural significance, they get the full force of it, with all its cultural baggage. If they don’t, then they take it at face value.

This brings us to another intriguing term that’s been getting a lot of play lately: dog whistle.

Know Your Words · Word Wednesday

Rhetoric: From Truth to Persuasiveness

Spiegel_Const_van_Rhetoriken_1555In the wake of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, reporters, commentators, and talking heads of every sort have argued that the perpetrator was spurred on by President Trump’s demeaning and divisive rhetoric against immigrants, the media, Democrats, and pretty much anyone who refuses to bow down and kiss his ring. The President, of course, denies any culpability and has struggled to deflect such accusations on to the media for its insistence on reporting1 the hateful things he says in public.

Sigh ….

All of this makes me wonder if the President knows what rhetoric is. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), rhetoric is defines as:

1) The art of using language so as to persuade or influence others
2) Speech or writing expressed in terms calculated to persuade; hence language characterized by artificial or ostentatious expression
3) Skill in or faculty of using eloquent and persuasive language

On one hand, I’d say he is aware of it. Even though it’d be a stretch to call the man eloquent, there is no doubt that he knows how to speak to the folks that make up his base and keep them on his side. Yet, if that’s true — if he’s deliberately using language to influence the behavior of his supporters — then it presents something of a problem, for he should then understand how the rhetorical devices that pepper his “speeches” (e.g., the references to immigrants as “invaders” and all the rest of his demeaning language) might spur some of those supporters to shoot up a synagogue.

Etymology: Say What?

Rhetoric2, says the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, is a Middle English word that comes from Old French rethorique, via Latin and Greek rhetorike (tekhne “art” + rhetor “rhetor”). In ancient Greece, a rhetor, says the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins, was a “public speaker” or an “orator.” Partridge’s Origins: A Short  Etymological Dictionary of Modern English offers a more detailed account:

Greek rhematikos, adjective of rhema, a word … rhema is akin to Greek rhetor, a “teacher of oratory,” whence via Late Latin, “the learned,” English “rhetor“. Both rhema and rhetor, for wherma and whretor, derive from eiro (werio), “I say.”

Persuasiveness over Truthfulness

So in the end, rhetoric boils down to the words that you or I “say,” but what if, when all is said and done, you haven’t said much of anything? This, sadly, is what rhetoric has come to mean today, and not just because of our current president.

As noted in the Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory, rhetorical skills were revered in antiquity. Nowadays, not so much.

[Rhetoric] has been the subject of scholarly study since at least the 4th century BC. It was a central component of Classical learning alongside logic and grammar in both Athens and Rome,3 where it was divided into three categories: judicial, deliberative, and epideictic. While Classical scholars considered rhetorical skill essential to the good conduct of both politics and philosophy, and as a consequence eminent scholars of the time like Aristotle wrote treatises on the subject, over time, but especially in the Romantic period, rhetoric has come under suspicion for emphasizing persuasiveness over truthfulness. Rhetoric in some contexts, particularly in the political arena, has become a code word for empty or insubstantial discourse.

The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy offers a similar, albeit more succinct, take on the subject. Its entry for rhetoric reads, “Speech or writing that lacks substance but is aimed at persuading an audience is often called ‘mere rhetoric.'”

Even the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology piles on. It defines rhetoric as “The art of persuasive, influential, or entertaining speech or oratory” and “bombastic or mannered speech or writing, or language that seems impressive but lacks true meaning.”

Lacks substance? Bombastic? Emphasizing persuasiveness over truthfulness? This is beginning to sound familiar. It’s almost as if these books were written with a particular person in mind.



1) I thought it might be useful to point out that the Oxford Dictionary of Journalism defines reporter as “A journalist who finds things out rather than one who merely processes, polishes, and presents the work of others…. Their role is, essentially, to discover and/or verify fresh information about topical and newsworthy events, to turn such information into stories appropriate to their news organization’s outlets, and — just as important — to discard information that does not stand up to scrutiny.”

2) According to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the spelling of rhetoric (with rh-) is first recorded about 1475, in imitation of the Latin spelling. The extended sense of “mastery of literary eloquence, elegance in writing or speech,” appeared in Middle English in 1395, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The depreciatory meaning of “language characterized by artificial, ostentatious, or exaggerated expression,” is first recorded in the 1500s.

3) For an amazingly in-depth account of how the ancient Greeks (and to a lesser extent, the Romans) thought about rhetoric, along with some insight as to how it evolved over time in Greek society, check out the entry for rhetoric in The Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art (Seyffert). Here’s a taste:

Among the Greeks, rhetorike comprised the practical as well as the theoretical art of speaking, and rhetor denoted an orator no less than a teacher of oratory. Among the Romans, it denoted only the latter, the actual speaker being called orator. The first men, who reduced oratory to a system capable of being taught, appeared among the Sicilian Greeks, who, according to testimony of the ancients, were distinguished for the keenness of their understanding and their love of disputation.

Know Your Words

The “Trouble” in Enigma

Nelson Muntz was once described as “an enigma wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a vest.” An article in today’s Washington Post refers to the Trump White House as a “troubling enigma.” These are entertaining and memorable statements (and in the case of the second one, somewhat sad), but what exactly does the word enigma mean?


An enigma, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is:

  1. A short composition in prose or verse, in which something is described by intentionally obscure metaphors, to afford an exercise for the ingenuity of the reader or hearer to guessing what it meant; a riddle. In a wider sense, an obscure or allusive speech; a parable.
  2. Something as puzzling; an unsolved problem.

As for the word’s origin, enigma, says the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, “comes via Latin from Greek ainigma ‘riddle,’ from ainissesthai, ‘speak allusively or obscurely,’ from ainos, ‘fable.'”

The Dictionary of Word Origins (Ayto) says the same thing, as does Origins, but the latter offers an interesting addition that makes the term and its use a little clearer. After providing an etymology similar to the above, it notes:

… to speak darkly, hence in riddles, from ainos, a fable or an allegory; perhaps comes from the Gothic inilo,  a plea, or a reason, to be excused.

The addition of a word like “darkly,” is helpful given that, while enigma is equated with something puzzling or undecipherable, the word has always had a sinister tinge to it. (The use of the word “intentional” in the OED definition starts down this path, but doesn’t go far enough.) In fact, the sense of evil in the word is precisely why it’s so applicable to a character like Nelson Muntz, and why it is indeed so “troubling” to apply it to the current U.S. administration.

Dictionary of Word Origins
Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English
Oxford English Dictionary (compact edition)
Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories

For more info on the LRL’s collection, go here.

Know Your Words

Can Trump’s Appeal Be Explained By Our Culture’s Preference for Extroverts?

Note: I wrote this for another (now defunct) blog of mine before the election. I thought I’d resurrect it here as I contemplate the meaning of our would-be emperor’s recently issued ban on Muslims … and why anyone would vote for such an individual.


“Western society is based on Greco-Roman ideals of the person that can speak well, a rhetorical ideal. We have always been to some extent a society that favors action over contemplation. But this really reached a pitch when we moved from an agricultural society into the world of big business. And that’s when it really became the case that to stand out and succeed in a company, with people that you had never met before, the quality of being very magnetic, very charismatic in a job interview suddenly became very important. This happened at the turn of the 20th century.”

These words of introvert spokeswoman Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, appeared in the Guardian in 2012, in an interview paired with the headline, “Society Has a Cultural Bias Toward Extroverts.”

But is that true?


I believe it is and in support of my assertion, I point to Exhibit A: Mr. Donald J. Trump.

Think about it: Ever since he appeared on the political stage, political pundits have been trying (hard) to explain why this man, who has no political experience and not bothered to formulate any detailed policy initiatives, is so friggin’ popular. Oh, there are theories: he’s telling people (aka: the “silent majority”) what they want to hear; he’s capitalizing on white middle-class resentment and anger; he’s the epitome of a political outsider … so on and so forth.

But I think it just might have something to do with introversion and extroversion. Whereas Obama, the introvert, comes off as thoughtful, measured, and cool. Trump, the extrovert, is always at the ready to shoot his mouth off, fly off the handle, and get hot under the collar. And while such traits might be something the average person would be asked to “work on,” they seem to play to Trump’s advantage.

How can this be?

Well, as Cain notes in the Guardian interview, America no longer has much need for the “strong silent type.” I know, the interview took place in 2012, and no one thought about Trump back then. Nevertheless, given his shocking success in the primary [ and even more shocking success on election night] and his near omnipresence in the media, you’ve got to admit that Cain’s assessment is right on.

“There are these cultural demands for men to be very dominant. But there are roles for introverted men: the strong reserved man, the strong silent type. I think especially in the UK, there is more of a place for dignified reserve. The U.S. used to have a place for that, but we lost it!”

This brings us to President Obama, a politician famous for his dignified reserve he spawned a character: Key and Peele’s “Luther: Obama’s Anger Translator.”  In addition, this past week, US News ran an op-ed by reporter Jamie Stiehm that asked, would Obama’s presidency have been different if he were extroverted?”

weird-french-guys“What [Myers Briggs personality] type would Obama be? I think he’s an INTP [an acronym for I (introvert) N (intuition) T (thinking) P (perception)] …. I’ve often thought about how how Obama’s presidency would have turned out if his temperament was more outgoing and gregarious, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson or the aforementioned [Bill] Clinton. All were Democratic presidents who knew how to wheedle, bargain, glad-hand, joke, rib and horse-trade.”

Trump’s personality has been documented in in the pages of our nation’s periodicals as well and, as you might expect, he’s portrayed much differently than our current Commander-in-Chief.  As psychologist Dan McAdams wrote in The Atlantic:

“Across his lifetime, Donald Trump has exhibited a trait profile that you would not expect of a U.S. president: sky-high extroversion combined with off-the-chart low agreeableness.

“Like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton (and Teddy Roosevelt, who tops the presidential extroversion list), Trump plays his role in an outgoing, exuberant, and socially dominant manner. He is a dynamo—driven, restless, unable to keep still.”

Did you catch the words McAdams used to describe the Donald in all his Trumpiness? “Outgoing,” “exuberant,” “dynamo,” “driven” … these words describe qualities to which most Americans aspire, particularly in the business world. In fact, this article from on the “13 Traits of an Outstanding Salesman,” features many of the same or similar terms. Coincidence?

I know, the people who support Trump can probably cite countless reasons they prefer him to Hillary — and I’m willing to bet that his being an over-the-top extrovert wouldn’t be in the top 100. Nevertheless, there is no denying, as the website wrote (echoing Ms. Cain in the process) :

“The Western world places a premium on extroverted behaviors such as gregariousness, dominance, being comfortable in the spotlight, preferring action to contemplation, valuing certainty over doubt, and favoring quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong.”

Does this sound like anyone you know?


Just recently, I came across this article that analyzed Trump’s mental state. The results, it seems, are not good (to no one’s surprise).

Know Your Words

Dictionaries to the Rescue


The morning after the election, I tweeted something along the lines of, “If there is a silver lining to the election of Donald Trump, it’s that it should inspire a lot of good punk rock and metal over the next four years.”

Little did I know that, in addition to these forthcoming musical gems, this knuckle head’s rise to power would also get the folks behind some of our lexicographical institutions all fired up!

This whole thing started last Sunday, when Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told Chuck Todd of NBC that that Trump Press Secretary Shawn Spicer was offering “alternative facts” when he told reporters that, “[The crowd at Trump’s swearing-in] was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.”

Not missing a beat, Merriam-Webster began making fun of the Trump administration through its Twitter feed, taking Conway to task for trying to sell “alternative facts” as, you know, a thing.
“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality,” the dictionary company said in a  tweet that linked to a Merriam-Webster posting about how look-ups for the word “fact” spiked after Conway’s comment.

As awesome as that initial ribbing was, the story continues to get better as Merriam-Webster has continued to school the Trump administration on its use of words … or at least it’s attempts to use them.

And so, for its continued efforts to educate our “president,” as well as for its success in making dictionaries cool again, we here at the ARLCP tip our hats to Merriam-Webster. Hence our decision to make this lexicographical kerfluffle our “News Item of the Week.”

For more on the dictionary’s revenge, see the following articles:

Subtweet (v.): What Merriam-Webster Dictionary Is Doing to the President

Did a dictionary diss Trump team’s ‘alternative facts’?

The dictionary that’s one of Trump’s funniest fact checkers

Trump Derangement Syndrome? Urban Dictionary has bashed president every day since inauguration
Washington Times

We Talked to the Genius Behind the Viral Merriam-Webster Twitter Account