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Political profanity and crude creativity on the campaign trail

In the United States, thoughts are turning to the start of the primary season, when votes are cast to choose each party’s presidential nominee. It’s a complicated and sometimes very long process, beginning in Iowa and winding all the way to the conventions in the summer, and every time it gets going, there are certain buzzwords that seem to find their way into the American popular consciousness. Flip-flop first became widely used in 2004, and could anyone forget hanging chads back in 2000? Not to mention the “hopey changey stuff” mentioned by Barack Obama and derided by Sarah Palin in 2008.

Refudiating real words

In fact, Ms. Palin has made her return for this election to endorse one especially colourful candidate who’s been notable for the use of a different, more vernacular—and some say vulgar—language on the campaign trail. Speaking up in favour of Donald Trump, she managed to come up with at least one word that’s also not made it into the dictionary thus far: squirmish, in the context of continuing battles in the Middle East. Like George W. Bush, whom Saturday Night Live successfully portrayed as using words such as strategery, Ms. Palin has been known for her idiosyncratic use of language in the past. Perhaps most famously in 2010, she tweeted the word refudiate (a portmanteau of refute and repudiate), which was Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year a few months later.

But the man she’s endorsing has managed to come up with a few new words and phrases of his own—including one that sounds like “bigly,” though some say he means “big league.” Mr. Trump has used it repeatedly as a means of emphasis in stump speeches (stump used in relation to political campaigning, referring to the use of a tree stump, from which an orator would speak). Instances include phrases such as “Iran is taking over Iraq bigly,” or referencing Fox News talking “bigly” about immigration. The property tycoon’s New York-accented pronunciation has also catapulted the word yuge (his way of saying huge) into the media election lexicon, with pundits writing about Trump’s “yuge” crowd or “yuge” lead in the polls. Brooklyn-born Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic nomination, pronounces the word the same way (perhaps one of the only things the two men have in common).

Hillary got what?

But it’s not just Trump’s pronunciation that’s hit the headlines—it’s also his use of controversial words and phrases, including anchor baby, used to refer to a child born in America to parents who aren’t citizens. Fellow Republican candidate Jeb Bush was mired in controversy when he used the term last August, but Mr. Trump uses it unapologetically, even in the description of another candidate, Ted Cruz.

And when it came to describing Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s performance in the 2008 presidential race, Donald Trump used a word many Americans also considered offensive (as well as unusual), saying the former First Lady had gotten schlonged. Some interpreted the term as turning the vulgar, Yiddish-derived noun schlong (penis) into a verb. Some felt the word wasn’t worthy of a man seeking higher office. And some speculated that he might have meant something else, but whatever the intention, the term’s likely to go down in the annals of American political campaign history.

Ass-kickings and other profanities

The use of familiar, vulgar terms has been something of a theme of Mr. Trump’s speeches, from his frequent use of the word loser to describe his opponents or those with whom he disagrees, to phrases such as “you bet your ass I would,” when asked if he would approve waterboarding terror suspects. Attendees at his rallies can buy badges calling for America to “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” while Sarah Palin said she was endorsing Trump because he’d be a President who would “kick ISIS ass.”

This kind of slang has been used by other candidates too; former Florida governor Jeb Bush has said, “We’re Americans, damn it!” at a fundraiser, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul accused those defending government surveillance of talking “bullshit.” Ben Carson, during a nationally televised Republican debate, derided government subsidies as a “bunch of crap.” And even Bernie Sanders, also in a televised debate, said that the American people were tired of hearing about Hillary Clinton’s “damn emails.” But Mr. Trump seems to be in the lead when it comes to his use of familiar slang, especially to those who’ve crossed him, who’ve been called, among other things, jerks, clowns, and morons.

Of course, British politicians aren’t above using this kind of language; see, for example, Ed Miliband’s recent “hell yeah” when asked by Jeremy Paxman if he were tough enough to take on the role of Prime Minister. David Cameron had to apologize after saying “too many twits might make a twat” during a 2009 radio interview. And they too can be muddled in their use of words; former Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy was widely ridiculed for pronouncing fundamentally as “fundilymundily” at the Leaders’ Debate in Edinburgh in 2015.

But it seems it’s American politics, with its wide range of candidates and relative informality, that’s continually generating more creative, vibrant and, yes, sometimes puzzling or shocking language. And there’s a long time to go until 8 November, so we’re likely to see a great deal more in the meantime.

A version of this blog post originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Image Credit: “Donald Trump” by Gage Skidmore. CC BY SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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