Which catchphrase will catch on?

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 6, 2012 - 3:31 PM

Campaign catchphrases sometimes gain lasting traction, turning bywords into watchwords.

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At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Max Cleland gave the thumbs up with John Kerry's Swift boat crew members while giving the intro speech to John Kerry's appearance.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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The ballots have been cast, and the public has spoken. But it's what we the people say that will determine whether our language will be better off than it was four years ago.

We're talking campaign catchphrases that catch on.

What will be this year's "swiftboating," "vision thing" or "giant sucking sound"? Which words or phrases uttered by the candidates or their cohorts will become part of the lexicon?

St. Olaf political science professor Henriët Hendriks thinks there are patterns to what sticks with us. "If there's a strong mental image that comes up whenever we hear it, it becomes powerful," said Hendriks, a presidential campaign expert. "If it's more accessible wording, it's more powerful, like 'flip-flopping.'

"Second, if it's not opposed, if it takes hold and there's no competing narrative, it sticks. That's why, with the 'binder full of women' narrative, the Romney campaign tried quickly to counter that. But if it gets repeated and repeated by the media, and now by social media, it sticks."

Some campaigns produce more than one phrase that endures. Two words from 2004 made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. The key, said Oxford's U.S. editor Katherine Martin, is "for a word to be used outside the circumscribed context of a single political campaign."

"'Swift-boating' was originally used only with reference to John Kerry, but now it is used as a general term to describe ad hominem attacks on a candidate. 'Flip-flop' is also used as a general figurative term for a dramatic change in policy."

Some phrases made their mark in two campaigns: "Read my lips: no new taxes" in 1988 (spoken by George H.W. Bush) and in 1992 (used against Bush after he raised taxes).

One byword even has provided a ubiquitous suffix for any scandal: Watergate.

In the olden days before Internet memes, slogans such as "I like Ike" were part of the lasting campaign lexicon.

No more.

Aside from the occasional "Yes, we can," the stuff that sticks tends to come from debates ("There you go again," "You're no Jack Kennedy") or actual events ("hanging chads").

Words have power, and while these words also have endurance, it's debatable how much influence they wield, Hendriks said.

"They shade how we remember these events," she said, "and it's always easier to have two or three simple explanations for how an election turned out. So, looking back, we might credit these phrases more than they deserve."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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