Friday, 30 April 2010

Say what you mean and mean what you say

Gordon Brown's spectacular own goal this week - instantly dubbed "Brown's 'bigot' gaffe" by the media - may well be the defining moment not just of his election campaign but of his political career. As Roy Greenslade put it in his Guardian Blog yesterday:  "It was the gaffe of all gaffes. And he will pay dearly for it."

Ah, the perils of getting out and about and talking to real people.  A slightly awkward encounter with 65 year-old widow Gillian Duffy, who talked about eastern Europeans 'flocking' into Britain, was turned into a full-blown disaster when Gordon Brown got into his waiting car and made what was called "unguarded comments" to an aide, little realising that the lapel microphone provided by Sky News was still turned on.

He described Mrs Duffy as "a sort of bigoted woman". Later that day he was caught holding his head in his hands as Jeremy Vine played the comments back to the nation. Yesterday The Daily Mail helpfully produced a page of pictures which showed how the whole gruesome episode unfolded in the space of one hour.

So, what is a gaffe?  The Free Dictionary defines it as: 1. A clumsy social error; a faux pas; and 2. A blatant mistake or misjudgment.

I learned this week from a Comment if Free piece in the Guardian by Jacob Weisberg, that Gordon Brown had made what is technically a Kinsley gaffe - defined by Wikipedia as: "an occurrence of (a politician) telling the truth by accident."  The term was first coined by American political journalist Michael Kinsley in 1992.

It could also be defined as a microphone gaffe.  Wikipedia defines this as "an error whereby a microphone is switched on in proximity of a subject who is unaware that their remarks are being broadcast." And this type of gaffe catches out not just politicians, but sports presenters, journalists and newsreaders. But this equation is probably true:  human + microphone = disaster waiting to happen.

Gordon Brown's remarks are included in Wikipedia's list of political gaffes, just below Jesse Jackson's 2008 whispered aside before a Fox News interview that he wanted to "cut his (Barack Obama's) nuts off" after Obama had made an election speech questioning working class values. Third on the list is Prime Minister John Major's comments after an ITN interview in 1993 in which he called members of his Cabinet "bastards". Top of the list is the infamous 'soundcheck' comments made by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 during the Cold War. Although never broadcast, he said: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."

Curiously, Hillary Clinton's use of the phrase 'to misspeak' seems to be missing from the list. She was famously caught out during the 2008 race for the democratic presidential nomination exaggerating the dangers she had faced in 1996 during a short trip to Bosnia. When challenged, she said "I misspoke". There's a wonderful essay in the New Yorker about the issue of 'misspeaking' here.

But back to the hapless Gordon Brown, if  I was putting together a 'package' of visuals to describe his week, I'd be tempted to use 'I am not a robot' by Marina and the Diamonds as the backing track. Why?  Listen to the lyrics:

I guess the moral of the tale for politicians is: always try to say what you mean and mean what you say.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Ouch! Typos that hurt

A little news item that caught my eye recently concerned an Australian publishing company that had to reprint 7,000 cookbooks, at a cost of £12,000, due to a typo.

The typo occured in a pasta recipe (for tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto) that called for "salt and freshly ground black people" instead of black pepper.

According to the report on the BBC website, "almost every one of the more than 150 recipes in the book listed salt and freshly ground black pepper, but a misprint occurred on just one page."

Well, that's all it takes - one mistake.

Bob Sessions, head of publishing at Penguin Group Australia was quoted as saying: "When it comes to the proof-reader, of course they should have picked it up, but proof-reading a cookbook is an extremely difficult task. I find that quite forgivable."
How great is that?

But all this is just an excuse for me to show you a wonderful youtube clip by US performance poet Taylor Mali:

Remember - "the red penis your friend."

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Iceland's volcano - a tale of plumes & pronunciation

The eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano has understandably caught the attention of the media - especially as it involves thousands of Britons 'stranded' on foreign shores, facing epic return journeys.

But it has been noticeable that while print and online media have used the full name of the volcano in their reports (and that lovely description of the ash cloud - 'plume'), broadcast media journalists have tended to go with 'Iceland's volcano' to avoid trying to pronounce a word that means 'island-mountain glacier' in Icelandic.

Wikipedia helpfully provides a sound link . But for those of us with no experience or knowledge of Icelandic, it's pretty hard to get this right.

By 22 April, typing in 'how to pronounce the Iceland volcano' in Google yielded an amazing 14,600,000 results - proving that people have now got bored by the stories of stranded travellers and are looking for new angles to the story.

Typing in 'Eyjafjallajökull pronunciation' into the search box on youtube got 55 results, including this one:

And this one - comprising a song written and performed by Icelandic singer Eliza Geirsdottir Newman:

Of course, big news stories tend to generate jokes and the eruption of  the Eyjafjallajökull volcano is no exception., a news website in the US, already has a list of 'erupting jokes'. In at number 7 is:

"An eruption in Katla (the volcano next to Eyjafjallajökull) will be a lot harder on everyone, except on those who have to pronounce it."

So there you have it.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Election language

After Nick Clegg's surprise victory in the UK's first televised leaders election debate, it's been interesting reading some analysis of the language used not only in the live debate but also by all three main parties in their election manifestos which were published last week.

Of course all three party leaders had been rehearsed to within an inch of their lives for the debate but the words they use as individuals can still tell us something more than the soundbites they have committed to memory.

In his blog Wordwatchers American psychologist and linguist James W Pennebaker has analysed the words used by Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg during the debate on 15 April to "get a sense of their personality, social, and thinking styles." Pennebaker and his team at The University of Texas have run similar tests on words used by candidates in the American presidential debates in 2004 and 2008.

Interestingly, their approach to this word-crunching task is to focus on what they call 'junk' words that we all use in everyday speech - pronouns, prepositions, articles, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs. Whereas content words (nouns and verbs) tell us what someone is talking about, says Pennebaker, junk words can provide an insight into people's personality, emotional state, and social styles.

While he describes the first debate as "incredibly tame", with all three men taking in a similar way, Pennebaker found "striking differences" between Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg with David Cameron somewhere in between.

Gordon Brown used "emotionally and psychologically distant" language and instead of using 'I' tended to use 'we' as well as using more negative emotion words. Apparently using 'we' is a sign of distancing seen in "less adept" politicians, such as John Kerry and Al Gore.

Nick Clegg, by contrast, used 'I' more often, used far more positive words and used the present tense, indicating he was more honest and engaged in "the here-and-now".  

Like Brown, David Cameron also used a lot of negative emotion words but was more angry, whereas Brown came across as anxious.  His use of words like would, should, and could made him appear moralistic and had "a greater focus on money-related issues."

The analysis also shed light on the thinking styles of each leader, with Gordon Brown’s language seeming the most complex and interesting.  In contrast, both David Cameron and Nick Clegg used more "cognitive or thinking words – words such as think, realize, understand, because."  Pennebaker says these words are used by people "still trying to construct a story. In other words, Cameron and Clegg are still trying to come up with ways to frame their thinking compared to Brown who already has a story in his head."

Pennebaker warns us not to take the results of this analysis too seriously but suggests that as they get used to the settings of the debates, each candidate will start to reveal their natural ways of speaking." Now that will be interesting.

Meanwhile, on last Saturday's 'Heckler' programme on Radio 4, Clive Anderson challenged a forensic linguist, Dr Tim Grant, to assess each of the main parties' manifestos.

His computer analysis revealed the Tories' manifesto contained more negative emotional words and Labour's more positive words. Unlike both the Tories and Labour, the Liberal Democrats apparently don't use the word 'will'. Instead they use lots of 'cognitive' words - they 'believe' in things.

Unsurprisingly, Dr Grant concluded that the manifestos were not written for the general public. Instead, they're written for other politicians and journalists, with lots of jargon and 'embedded language' that only those in the know can interpret.

Sounds like a great insomnia cure to me.