15 Most Annoying Expressions in Politics

15 Most Annoying Expressions in Politics

By Carl M. Cannon - June 27, 2014

Irritating phrases and words are not confined to political circles, or solely to Washington, although here in the nation’s capital they burrow in and proliferate like obsolete, but entrenched, government programs. This is a call to arms to fight them—but only metaphorically.

15: “WAR ON [FILL IN THE BLANK]” Syria’s civil war has produced 2.5 million refugees and a death toll of 160,000, a tragedy that has galvanized neither major political party into action. So next time a Democrat brays about the so-called Republican “war on women” or a Republican trumpets the Obama administration’s “war on coal,” tell them you’ve seen what real war looks like—and ask what the U.S. can do to stop it.

14. “TAX HIKE” It’s not a “hike.” What are you going to do, put it in a knapsack and take it for a walk? It’s a tax increase. This usage was coined by headline writers because it’s shorter. Speaker of the House John Boehner, who often employs this phrase, has no such excuse.

13. “RIGHT-WING” This term is bandied about carelessly, usually as a pejorative. In “The Devil’s Dictionary,” Ambrose Bierce defined “conservative.” Here is the entry, in its entirety: “CONSERVATIVE, n. a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” The converse of “right-wing,” a label freely applied to Fox News and countless Republican elected officials, is not “liberal,” it’s “left wing.”

12. “FRANKLY” Rhett Butler made this word famous, but when politicians preface their remarks with “frankly” (or “candidly”), they don’t give a damn about being frank or candid. Usually, it means they’re about to tell a whopper—or recite a talking point. Listen for this usage from now on. It’s a self-administered lie detector.

11. TALKING POINTS” Pols who recite self-serving spin written by others while answering basic questions about their jobs are essentially reading the stage directions. It suggests they are too lazy to invent their own fibs or excuses—or that they work for control freaks who don’t trust them to know their own subject matter. This is a discordant trait in a high-ranking official, such as U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice or anyone who attended top-notch schools, which also fits Rice. She was a history major at Stanford and a Rhodes scholar with a master’s degree and a doctorate from Oxford.                      

10. “DOCTOR” In the White House compound and certain media precincts, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden is referred to as “Dr. Biden,” usually in reverential tones. This is understandable—who wants to be called “the second lady”? But, like Susan Rice, Jill Biden has a PhD, not a medical degree. It was also a secret password in the Bush administration to affix “Dr.” in front of another foreign policy official surnamed Rice. Susan Rice, Condoleezza Rice, and Jill Biden are accomplished people, but the old-time newsroom rule is best: If someone isn’t licensed to take your tonsils out, you don’t have to call ’em “Doc.”

9. “LOOK…” Almost as soon as he arrived in Washington, Barack Obama adopted the off-putting Sunday talk show habit—used promiscuously by Karl Rove—of starting sentences with the word “Look.” Two months after his inauguration, things got so bad that Jimmy Fallon sought to discourage its proliferation by producing a montage, set to music, of Obama saying “Look…” 26 times in an hour-long news conference. To a layman, it sounds like Obama is really saying, “Look here, moron…” But two UCLA professors told Anya Sostek of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that this preamble isn’t as patronizing as it sounds. Manny Schegloff says Obama is signaling that he’s about to provide background information as part of his answer that informs his policy position. His colleague Steven Clayman adds that Ronald Reagan often began answers to questions with the word, “Well”—as a way of preparing listeners for a different answer than they might expect. Or so say Dr. Clayman and Dr. Schegloff.

8. “PARTY OF REAGAN” Nothing unites Republicans more than their professed love of the Gipper. But do they really get him? When Sarah Palin invokes Reagan’s name while railing against immigrants, or hawkish GOP senators agitate for another U.S. military intervention, or state Sen. Chris McDaniel chides Thad Cochran for urging Democrats to cross party lines and vote in a GOP primary in Mississippi, they’re not channeling the Gipper. They are displaying amnesia. The operative phrase, Sen. McDaniel, was “Reagan Democrats.”

7. “WITH ALL DUE RESPECT” One hears this during congressional debates and cable TV slugfests, usually signifying the exact opposite. “My opponent is an extremist, or possibly an idiot,” is what they really mean. “He’s offering these dangerous ideas either because he’s been bribed—or threatened—by the corrupt special interest groups who control his sorry excuse for a political party. So opposing his proposal is a no brainer…”

6. “NO-BRAINER” It’s not rocket science or thinking outside the box to note that overused clichés are meant to stifle communication rather than facilitate it. But “no-brainer” holds a special place in semantic hell because it often, and inadvertently, undermines the utterer’s own point, as in, “Invading Iraq was a no-brainer.”

5. “SETTLED SCIENCE” “Politics is not an exact science,” German statesman Otto von Bismarck told the Prussian legislature. True enough, but the same can be said of science itself. To the genuinely intellectually curious, “settled science” is an oxymoron. “There is something fascinating about science,” Mark Twain wrote 20 years after Bismarck’s speech. “One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

4. “DENIER” This slur is used to shame or silence global-warming skeptics and other heretics who question conventional wisdom. It has an ugly provenance, too, coming from “Holocaust denier,” a description applied to those best described as neo-Nazis or lunatics (or both). But skepticism is not a sin. The famed Chicago City News Bureau popularized a journalistic bromide: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” It means get a second source, be careful, and don’t just repeat what you hear. Words to live by. (By the way, my Twain reference comes from “Life on the Mississippi,” Chapter 6.)

3. “JUST SAYIN’” For five straight years, the Marist College poll has queried Americans on the expressions they find most obnoxious. Each year, the winner is the dismissive “Whatever.” Another entry has been gaining ground in recent years. This is the phrase “Just saying” (or Just sayin’). This expression is so ubiquitous, not to mention devoid of actual meaning, that it’s used by President Obama and Sarah Palin (in her case, to mock Obamacare). It translates roughly as, “I just said something snarky.” As if we didn’t know.

2. “AT THE END OF THE DAY” When Bill and Hillary Clinton arrived on the national scene, they brought pizazz to politics. They also popularized this unfortunate phrase. “At the end of the day” is simultaneously addictive and grating. Its first usage can be traced to 1826, although it really caught on in the 1990s. In Britain, it so offended BBC host Vanessa Feltz that she issued a fatwa against the phrase, which she rescinded when no guest was able to speak aloud without using it. In this country, it quickly spread beyond the Clinton circle. Everyone says it now: Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, baseball players, football coaches, prosecutors, bartenders, movie stars. In 2004, an organization called The Plain English Campaign surveyed its members in 70 countries and pronounced it “the most irritating phrase in the English language.”

1. “FOLKS” U.S. presidents love this word, which they find, well, folksy. It’s been invoked by our chief executives some 4,400 times since Herbert Hoover occupied the Oval Office. Bill Clinton loved “folks” so much he used it publicly eight times during his last month in office. But it’s proliferating. George W. Bush used it 21 times in his first month as president. Then he started misusing it. His most discordant example was his reference to “al-Qaeda, the very same folks that attacked us on September the 11th.” There must be something in the White House water supply because Obama matched Bush’s January-February 2001 record by saying “folks” 21 times in only two debates with Mitt Romney. The first time he used it in the Oct. 22, 2012, debate was the most jarring. Discussing military intervention in Syria, Obama said he wanted to make sure “we’re not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or allies in the region.” At least he didn’t say, “Look, frankly, at the end of the day—as Ronald Reagan knew—Syria is a no-brainer.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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