by Lauren Hurlbutt

plainwords1Photo by World of Good

Never “misunderestimate” the power of words. Words from all sides shape our perception of the world. As I watched the cable news media in the lead up to the inauguration of our new president, I was struck by how impactful words can become.


Taking advantage of the last few days of the Bush presidency, the more liberal outlets (AKA not Fox) aired sound bites of the most memorable moments of Bush’s linguistic creativity. As I watched them, I was shocked at how strange they sounded. What with all of the impersonations from comics and simply all of the people around me, the originals were almost unrecognizable. The term “axis of evil” has become such a joke in many circles, that seeing the now former President Bush giving a serious speech about the dangers of Iran and North Korea was completely alien to me. I kept expecting the kind of stereotypical red-neck laughter that Jon Stewart would add to any decent Bush joke.The entire experience made me wonder about the power of analysis. As a scholar of the manipulation of words, I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not, in the intense glare of the media spotlight, we’re losing the original meaning of what our political figures are trying to say. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending Bush. He did make some incredibly awkward comments about gynecologists.


But the question still remains, what happens when a culture gets its information from secondary sources? For example, when Chief Justice Roberts and now President Obama flubbed the Presidential oath, the media made such a fuss out of it that the new administration felt it necessary to re-do the oath on Wednesday afternoon. When I watched the oath myself, something was obviously amiss, but I would never have imagined that for some reason, the oath was null and void because of one misplaced word. Even the legal contributors on the very shows blowing the incident out of proportion agreed that the oath was valid. It was also interesting to note the way different figures (and channels, for that matter) interpreted the blame differently, claiming that either Roberts or Obama messed up. (For the record, they both did.)

But, ultimately, does the misplacement of one word change the power of the intentions behind a tradition lasting over two hundred years? Perhaps scholars of poetry will disagree with my opinion on this, but doesn’t the intention of our words rely on something more than their mere order? What do we lose when we focus on the minute details so much that we forget the bigger picture? In a world full of political pundits, partisan bickering, and news organizations representing each side, how do we know that the intentions of the people who shape our world are not getting manipulated? How do we know what is the reality of these speeches?

My answer, like any student of literature, is to go back to the text. Look at the event yourself. Read the situation yourself. Your own analysis is usually the best. Speak, don’t just listen. Don’t “misunderestimate” your own power to make the very words that shape your reality.