“This was back, oh gosh, probably in the late ’70s,” he reminisced to a radio host about a steak house. Or, Romney surmised how his Mormonism would play out during his campaign with, “Oh, I think initially, some people would say, ‘Gosh, I don’t know much about your faith, tell me about it,’ ” as if his G-word fetish were the way just anyone talks these days. Or: Chris Wallace asked whether said faith might be a disadvantage in voter perceptions of him, and Romney exclaimed, “Gee, I hope not!” Then, Romney on carried interest—one is to “say, gosh, is this a true capital investment with a risk of loss?”McWhorter, a linguist, gives this analysis:
Gee, gosh, and golly are all tokens of dissimulation. They are used in moments of excitement or dismay as burgherly substitutions, either for God and Jesus—words many religious people believe should not be “taken in vain”—or for words considered even less appropriate. . . . The medieval and even colonial Anglophones’ versions of profanity were to express dismay or vent pain by swearing—“making an oath”—to God or related figures considered ill-addressed in such a disrespectful way. The proper person at least muted the impact with a coy distortion, à la today’s shoot and fudge. . . . To increasing numbers of modern Americans, the G-words are unusable outside of quotation marks . . . .Gee, I don't find the "G" words that odd. I would be much more taken aback if I heard a presidential candidate using "man" or "dude" that way. And surely McWhorter wouldn't seriously advise Romney to start using "yo," at any point in any sentence. By the way, although the headline and the body of the article mention the word "golly" — the squarest of the "G" words — McWhorter doesn't give any example of Romney using that word.
The proscription against swearing “to God” has ever less force. I recall being taught it as a child in the ’70s but being quietly perplexed as to why and wondering what “in vain” meant. Since then, “ohmigod” has become an ordinary remark among even a great many churchgoers. The evasive essence of the G-words, redolent of the Beaver Cleaver 1950s Romney grew up in, has long been rejected as phony, out of line with the let-it-all-hangout essence of the culture. Indicatively, a Web search turns them up endlessly in ironic writing about Romney’s assorted evasions and half-truths during his campaign. The modern American, even if he or she has one of Romney’s Harvard degrees, often uses today’s version of profanity in the slots where Romney slides his G-words. A more, shall we say, vibrant translation of “Gee, I hope not” would be “Shit, I hope not,” and in “This was back, oh gosh, probably in the late ’70s,” “hell” would be substituted for the “oh gosh,” especially after a beer or two. Or, even in more buttoned-up moments, our versions of those sentences might include “Man, I hope not,” and especially for those under about 40, “Dude, I don’t know much about your faith.” Man and dude both reach out to the interlocutor seeking agreement. Man and dude are, at heart, solicitations—“You know what I mean, man/dude?”
This warmer, more personal way of speaking fits with a trend in American English during Romney’s lifetime, in which casual speech styles have occupied ever more of the space that used to be reserved for the more formal. Casual speech always has more room for the folksy reach-out than formal speech does: Witness the use of yo today among younger black people. “Them pants was tight, yo!” I once caught on the subway. The yo isn't the grand old call from a distance—Yo!—the guy’s friend was standing right there. This new yo appended to the ends of sentences has a particular function,reinforcing that you and your conversational partner are on the same page in terms of perspectives and attitudes.
A commenter on TNR has a good catch:
This article misses the single most antiquated bit of English in Mitt's arsenal: the use of "why" as an interjection. As in, "Why, that's just about the best piece of pie I've ever had!" I think Ward Cleaver was literally the last person in America to use "why" this way. In 2012 it's at best naive-sounding and at worst creepy.I agree that when Romney uses "Why . . ." at the beginning of an exclamation (instead of a question), he sounds like he's from a bygone era. We all know Romney isn't cool the way President Obama is.
However, though we'll never get tired of poking fun at the quirks of presidential candidates, I wonder whether it would be so bad to have a president whose speaking style is a bit out of touch. If that matters at all, it would mean he'd be slightly less adept at persuading people — either firing up his base, or winning people over to his point of view. If that's one of his main weaknesses, that might not be so bad. Our leaders shouldn't be too persuasive. Obama is so good at connecting — making you feel like he's talking directly to you — that it can be dangerous. After all, he has more power at his fingertips, including military and police forces, than anyone else in the world. People like Obama, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, and Tony Blair can talk you into anything. I sort of prefer the square, stilted politicians like Romney, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore. To me, they seem more "real," because most normal people would not be very adept at convincing a nation of hundreds of millions that "I'm basically like you; we want the same things." Most ordinary citizens who tried to run for president would probably come off as wooden and unhip. The candidate who can connect with most people is actually unlike most people.
Back to McWhorter's article: he says that Obama has "more modern" verbal tics:
This is true not only in the dusting of black inflection he often uses for rhetorical purposes, but in a certain interjectional tic: a particular penchant for you know even in weighty contexts. You know steps outside of the formal, propositional box of a statement to solicit agreement from the listener, rather like a raising of the eyebrows or hands spread outward with palms upward. A dedicated Obama mimic could go a long way in sprinkling develop thoughtful statements with ample you know-age.Actually, "you know" isn't so modern:
In 1998, I asked a 95-year-old linguist whether he remembered people using like in the hedging way they do now when he was a child, and he said that back then, you know was used in the same way. (I have since been told this by two other nonagenarians.) The difference is that Woodrow Wilson wasn’t given to saying you know in discussing the League of Nations.I've been struck by how many of the people who appear on Bloggingheads, for instance, will constantly pepper their speech with "you know," which seems to be the erudite version of "like." [ADDED: A similarly refined substitute for "like" is "sort of."] They've learned that "you know" makes you sound thoughtful and academic, while "like" makes you sound like a teenager. We're supposed to look down on people who constantly use "like," while admiring the nuance of those who use "you know." But as far as I can tell, neither one is more or less meaningful than the other.