The Games and Tricks We Play with Words

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by Neil Godfrey

Remember Don’t Think of an Elephant! and its co-author George Lakoff and then go to Trump Means Exactly What He Says: Trump is swaying millions with his calculated rhetoric also by Lakoff. Lakoff takes the time to dissect Trump’s seemingly casual throw-away words and helps us understand a lot about the subtleties of communication. We can often sense that something’s not right or that there’s a message being conveyed that is not being explicitly stated, but Lakoff’s analysis helps us identify why we can sense that and puts a spotlight on the mechanisms by which that unstated message is being conveyed:

Here’s his analysis of Trump’s suggestion that many took as a call to assassinate Hilary Clinton:

Here is the classic case, the Second Amendment Incident. The thing to be aware of is that his words are carefully chosen. They go by quickly when people hear them. But they are processed unconsciously first by neural circuitry—and neurons operate on a thousandth-of-a-second time scale. Your neural circuitry has plenty of time to engage in complex forms of understanding, based on what you already know.

Trump begins by saying, “Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment.” He first just says “abolish,” and then hedges by adding “essentially abolish.” But having said “abolish” twice, he has gotten across the message that she wants to, and is able to change the Constitution in that way.

Now, at the time the Second Amendment was written, the “arms” in “bear arms” were long rifles that fired one bullet at a time. The “well-regulated militia” was a local group, like a contemporary National Guard unit, regulated by a local government with military command structure. They were protecting American freedoms against the British.

The Second Amendment has been reinterpreted by contemporary ultra-conservatives as the right of individual citizens to bear contemporary arms (e.g. AK-47s), either to protect their families against invaders or to change a government by armed rebellion if that government threatens what they see as their freedoms. The term “Second Amendment” activates the contemporary usage by ultra-conservatives. It is a dog-whistle term, understood in that way by many conservatives.

Now, no president or Supreme Court could literally abolish any constitutional amendment alone. But a Supreme Court could judge that certain laws concerning gun ownership could be unconstitutional. That is what Trump meant by “essentially abolish.”

Thus, the election of Hillary Clinton threatens the contemporary advocates of the Second Amendment.

Trump goes on: “By the way, and if she gets to pick [loud boos]—if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Here are the details.

“By the way,” marks a parallel utterance, one that does not linearly follow from what was just said, but that has information relevant to what was just said.

“And” here marks information that follows from what was just said.

“If she gets to pick…” When said the first time, it was followed immediately by loud boos. The audience could finish the if-clause for themselves, since the word “pick” in context could only be about Hillary picking liberal judges. Trump goes on making this explicit, “if she gets to pick her judges…”

“Gets to” is important. The metaphor here with “to” is “Achieving a Purpose Is Reaching a Destination” with the object of “to” marking the pick. The “get” in “get to” is from a related metaphor, namely, Achieving a Purpose Is Getting a Desired Object. In both Purpose metaphors, the Achievement of the Purpose can be stopped by an opponent. The “if” indicates that the achievement of the purpose is still uncertain, which raises the question of whether it can be stopped.

“Her judges” indicates that the judges are not your judges, from which it follows that they will not rule the way you want them to, namely, for keeping your guns. The if-clause thus has a consequence: unless Hillary is prevented from becoming president, “her judges” will change the laws to take away your guns and your constitutional right to bear arms. This would be a governmental infringement on your freedom, which would justify the armed intervention of ultra-conservatives, what Sharon Angle in Nevada has called the “Second Amendment solution.” In short, a lot is entailed, in little time on a human timescale, but with lots of time on a neural timescale.

Having set this up, Trump follows the if-clause with “Nothing you can do, folks.” This is a shortened version in everyday colloquial English of “There will be nothing you can do, folks.” That is, if you let Hillary take office, you will be so weak you will be unable to stop her. The “folks,” suggests that he and the audience members are socially part of the same social group, as opposed to a distant billionaire with his own agenda.

Immediately after “nothing you can do,” Trump goes on: “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is.”

“Although” is a word used to contrast one possible course of events with an opposite possibility. Trump has just presented a possible course of events that is threatening to ultra-conservative Second Amendment advocates. “Although the Second Amendment people” calls up the alternative for those who would act violently to protect their Second Amendment right.

“Maybe” brings up a suggestion. “Maybe there is” suggests that there is something the “Second Amendment people” can do to prevent Hillary from taking office and appointing liberal judges who would take away what they see as their constitutional rights.

“I don’t know” is intended to remove Trump from any blame. But it acts unconsciously in the opposite way. It is like the title of the book I wrote, Don’t Think of an Elephant. The way the brain works is that negating a frame activates the frame. The relevant frame for “Second Amendment people” is use of arms to protect their rights against a government threatening to take away their rights. This is about the right to shoot, not about the right to vote. Second Amendment conservative discourse is about shooting, not voting.

The point here is that Trump’s use of language is anything but “word salad.” His words and his use of grammar are carefully chosen, and put together artfully, automatically and quickly.

Trump never overtly used the word “assassinate.” He says he was just suggesting that advocates of the Second Amendment vote, and was being sarcastic. A sarcastic invocation to vote would sound very different. A sarcastic invocation to vote might be, “The American way to change things is to vote. But maybe you care so much about shooting, you won’t be able to organize to vote.”

He didn’t say anything like that. And he chose his words very, very carefully.

Lakoff follows with a dissection of what’s at work with other instances of Trump-speech. It’s an education, at least for me — with application well beyond any particular interest in Trump.



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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “The Games and Tricks We Play with Words”

  1. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard Trump’s words being described as so expertly chosen, but I find it really hard to believe his words are managed so carefully when everything else about his campaign is a total disaster, unless either he literally never intended to become president, just wanted to run anyway knowing he can’t win and all that entails for his ego while it lasts, or alternatively in his mind he assumes that a majority of people absolutely believe in him and will vote for him as a matter of absolute faith, again just campaigning for the ego since it’s not actually even necessary for him to win.

    1. I don’t believe Trump (or any of us) is fully aware of the games we play with our words. We don’t sit down the night before and plan our script for the next day like this. Humans have evolved to be cunning devils. I suppose some used-car salesman and even lawyers are convinced they only ever speak from the heart in all sincerity.

    2. Of course Trump’s campaign is a total disaster; that is how come he is the Republican candidate. You see the disconnect? Let me guess: you’re a liberal who votes Democrat. You are not his audience. His campaign isn’t tailored for you; you would not be voting Republican whoever the candidate. Good luck in November, you may well wake up the day after with Trump president-elect and you will not have a clue how or why it happened.

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