Daniel Klein and Patrick Bonavitacola

Oh, my word!

Remaking the language, one Tweet at a time

By Daniel Klein and Patrick Bonavitacola
November 1, 2010

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HAPPILY, WE have no French Academy-like scolds suppressing our language, so our Lingua Americana — particularly our political Lingua Americana — can evolve with the times. As former Governor Sarah Palin tweeted when criticized for her colorful neologism “refudiate,’’ “English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too!’’ And it is not simply new words that are sprouting in the political arena, but new, catchy ways of expressing entire ideologies.

Yet there remain among us some pre-Twitter twits who are mired in the flowery, long-winded, so-very-last-millennium prose of Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Stevenson, and Kennedy — in short, dinosaurs who need a tutorial in today’s pithy lingo. To this end, we have assembled some examples of commentary on the eternal political subjects, comparing old school stodginess with the snappy cadences of our contemporary wordsmiths:

Personal Responsibility

Old: “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’’ — JFK, 1961

New: “Buck up or stay in the truck.’’ — Sarah Palin, 2010

Love of Your Country

Old: “When an American says that he loves his country, he means not only that he loves the New England hills, the prairies glistening in the sun, the wide and rising plains, the great mountains, and the sea. He means that he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw the breath of self-respect.’’ — Adlai Stevenson, 1952

New: “I love my country, it’s the government that sucks!’’ — Tea Party rally chant, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness

Old: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’’ Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence, 1776

New: “If he already knows what pleases him and he can please himself, why am I in this picture?’’ — Christine O’Donnell, Delaware Senate candidate, on pursuing happiness via masturbation, 2010

On Withstanding Temptation

Old: “Few men have the virtue to withstand the highest bidder.’’ — George Washington, 1779

New: “[A Senate seat] is a [expletive] valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing.’’ —Rod Blagojevich, 2008

Gender Political Protocol

Old: “I’m always rather nervous about how you talk about women who are active in politics, whether they want to be talked about as women or as politicians.’’ — John F. Kennedy, 1962

New: “Mike, this is not a bake-off, get your man-pants on.’’ — Christine O’Donnell to rival Mike Castle, 2010

Insult Finesse Old: “A reactionary is a somnambulist walking backwards.’’ — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936

New: ‘’[President Obama is an] Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug.’’ — Mark Williams, national spokesman for the Tea Party Express, 2009

Descriptive Accuracy:

Old: “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.’’ — Abraham Lincoln, 1862

New: ‘`These are beautiful properties with basketball courts, bathroom facilities, toilet facilities. Many young people would love to get the hell out of cities.’’ — Carl Paladino, New York candidate for governor, describing his idea to transform prisons into dorms for welfare recipients, 2010

Daniel Klein is co-author of “Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar.’’ Patrick Bonavitacola is a playwright.