Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg is a senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford. His most recent book is The Way We Talk Now.

Recent Articles

Thinking About the Government

Tom: You got dances, too? Caretaker: We got the best dances in the county every Saturday night. Tom: Say, who runs this place? Caretaker: The government. -- The Grapes of Wrath , 1940 (screenplay by Nunnally Johnson) “I've always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'” -- Ronald Reagan, 1986 (repeating a well-worn one-liner) Sometimes it really does feel as if it has been 65 years since anyone talked about “the government” in the approving tone that John Steinbeck's characters do, as the protector of the interests of the ordinary man against the rapacity of big business and the vicissitudes of the market. To judge from the ambient chatter -- the cable talk shows, the culty Web sites dedicated to Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, the jokes about how many bureaucrats it takes to change a light bulb (1000-plus hits on Google) -- it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that government is a really...

Privatization and the English Language

The art of building consensus out of the “vague and confusing medley” of individual opinions, Walter Lippmann wrote in The Phantom Public , consists in narrowing issues to a few simplified alternatives that can be reduced to “symbols which assemble emotions after they have been detached from their ideas.” It would be hard to go any further in that line than the slogans the current administration wallpapers across the backdrops for presidential appearances: “Jobs and Growth” when the president pushes for his tax cuts, “Compassion in Action” when he speaks about AIDS, or, most ambitiously, the “Mission Accomplished” banner aboard the USS Lincoln in May of 2003. At the president's economic conference in December, the backdrop slogan was “Securing the Economic Future.” Like the “war on terror” and the “faith-based initiative,” that slogan skillfully exploits the multiple meanings and resonances of its key terms. At first glance, “securing” may seem an awkward substitute for “achieving” or “...

Speech Impediments

For a lesson in how the right uses language to shape political perceptions, consider the television ad that the archconservative Club for Growth ran during the Iowa caucuses. An announcer asks a middle-aged couple leaving a barbershop what they think of "Howard Dean's plans to raise taxes on families by $1,900 a year." The man responds, "I think Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times -reading ..." -- and then his wife picks up the litany -- "... body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs." That picture of liberals is a deliberate demographic hodgepodge, of course -- you picture Marilyn Manson on the porch of his house in Rutland, TiVo-ing Curb Your Enthusiasm and laughing so hard at Maureen Dowd's column that he almost chokes on his unagi cone. But the ad succinctly summarized the jumble of attributes that the right has assigned to liberals over the years in...

The Liberal Label

"The masquerade is over; it's time to ... use the dreaded 'L' word, to say the policies of our opposition ... are liberal, liberal, liberal." -- Ronald Reagan, 1988 Since the 1930s, the landscape of American political discourse has been framed by the words liberal versus conservative . In this era, U.S. commentators first began to speak of American politics in terms of the spectrum of left, right and center, words previously used chiefly to describe foreign politics or the factions of radical movements. It was in the same New Deal period, too, that liberal and conservative were settled on as what Franklin Roosevelt described in 1941 as the "two general schools of political belief" of representative government. American political language may evolve along with changing issues and positions. But the background landscape can only be altered surreptitiously, while preserving the illusion of continuity and symmetry. There's no more impressive example of using language to alter substance...

Still Unbiased:

M y American Prospect study of press labeling continues to evoke responses from conservatives vexed by the finding that the press actually labels liberals more often than those on the right. In a lot of cases the objections are pure bluster. For example, Andrew Sullivan writes: I ignored Geoffrey Nunberg's piece in the American Prospect in April, debunking the notion of liberal media bias by numbers, because it so flew in the face of what I knew that I figured something had to be wrong. (And I was too lazy to do all the enormously laborious number-crunching to refute it. So sue me.) But then you're always hearing people plead physical laziness by way of justifying intellectual laziness. Another critic, Edward Boyd, can't be accused of laziness of either sort. He has produced a new study that overcomes the obvious objections to an earlier one, which relied on a search of a database that contained 40 percent foreign newspapers. This study looks at a year's worth of articles in five...

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