Campaigns and Connotations

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In the days since the recent election, several articles have listed terms that will never be the same: nasty woman, locker-room talk, deplorables, Buttercup. Who would have thought that labeling yourself a "nasty woman" would become a badge of honor? Or that the Tic Tac company would have to denounce a candidate? Or that Skittles and taco trucks and Cheetos would take on loaded meanings? (Biden: I left a bag of Cheetos in the bathroom. Obama: Why, Joe? Biden: In case he wants to powder his nose.) But that’s how connotations work.  A term takes on added meaning—meaning beyond its dictionary definition—because of context. The ugliest election in recent memory provided plenty of that as civility and decorum went out the window.


As for dictionary definitions, it is enlightening to examine the words most often looked up during the campaign, as reported by Merriam-Webster. Among the first on the list: trumpery, presumptive, glass ceiling, plagiarism, oligarchy (and socialism), redacted, bigot, hombre, braggadocious. The word searched most often on election night? Fascism.  The top look-ups since Trump was elected, in order, are: fascism, racism, socialism, resurgence, xenophobia, and misogyny. A common response to that list was that it is too bad people didn’t look up those words before the election.  One suggestion is that there has been a spike in look-ups for them because of the number of Americans organizing against the President-elect.  That would also explain why the word emoluments has suddenly entered the political vocabulary and why more people than ever now know what the fourth section of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment says. There is even a Tumblr for Trumpgrets. Its purpose: “to screenshot the tweets of Trump voters as they slowly come to the realization that a billionaire with a hair trigger and zero political experience mightn’t be the best person to run their country.” The Oxford Dictionary chose as its 2016 word of the year the word post-truth.

I’m sure that Trump’s team are now hard at work reinforcing the message that words truly do have consequences—and even more profound consequences when one is President or President-elect, even if they come in the form of late-night tweets. The best advice that Clinton ever gave him was to delete his account. Context does make a difference. Trump’s tweets criticizing China have alarmed foreign affairs experts. CNN reported that Victor Gao, a Chinese international relations expert, advised “that Trump could say what he liked as President-elect but his comments would have huge global consequences once in office.”  He added, “We hope President-elect Donald Trump . . . will handle himself with respect, accountability and responsibility and become a force of peace and stability rather than making whimsical and capricious remarks aimed at surprising the world.”


Credit: Nasty Women Win Elections | Mike Licht, | Flickr 

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.