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Elite defeat

NOT SO LONG AGO, ``elites" were rich and powerful, liberals had ``values," and ``entrepreneur" meant a capitalist, not a laid-off breadwinner scratching out a living at home. So why is it, blue-state linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has been wondering, that nowadays the ``elite" includes sitcom stars and English professors, but not Jack Welch or Bill O'Reilly?

Nunberg offers some answers in his new book, ``Talking Right," whose subtitle--quoting an actual TV ad from the 2004 presidential primaries--neatly sums up the rebranding tale: ``How Conservatives Turned Liberalism Into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show" (Public Affairs, $26).

And how did they? By telling a good story, says Nunberg. A word can't simply be waved like a flag; as Democrats who've tried to reclaim ``patriotism" and ``faith" have discovered, mere assertion is not enough. What conservatives have done, he says, is embed their key words in resonant contexts, so that ``values" now stands for ``a collection of particular narratives about the decline of cultural standards concerning sexuality, religion, hard work, and patriotism." Message: We care; liberals don't.

Depressed Dems already knew that, of course. But Nunberg goes beyond the consultants' conventional wisdom, using news databases and other online resources to document just how far, and how fast, some of the core political vocabulary has moved. Within a generation, he says, words like color-blind, hate speech, moderate, freedom, faith, and Christian have all been winched rightward--not just for conservatives, but for everyone sharing the language.

Not that there's anything unexpected about that. Politicians of all stripes try to ``alter and expand the meaning of symbols," Nunberg says, enabling a word to cast its shadow farther than literal truth would allow. Once brie and Volvo are shorthand for ``effete liberal," it no longer matters that Republicans buy more brie than Democrats, and nearly as many Volvos. It's not the content of the conservative language project that makes it noteworthy, but its sweeping success.

Though he's a partisan, frustrated with the Democrats' ineptitude at selling their political story, Nunberg is no frothing polemicist. My Republican relatives will enjoy ``Talking Right," too--heck, considering how generously Nunberg acknowledges the right's rhetorical accomplishments, they may enjoy it more than I did.

Not ready for politics quite yet? If you'd rather be schmooping or gurgitating, then slangmeister Grant Barrett has the dictionary for you. ``The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English" (McGraw-Hill, $14.95) collects hundreds of ``undocumented and underdocumented" words like the ones in his subtitle: ``A Crunk Omnibus for Thrillionaires and Bampots for the Ecozoic Age." Barrett's entries are not mere barroom fancies, but terms you can find in print and on the Internet, scrabbling for a foothold in the mainstream lexicon. Will Trashcanistan, ``any poor Middle Eastern country or Central Asian republic," hang around in the slang lexicon? Will ridonkulous follow humongous into general usage? Barrett, who also tracks such usage on his website, Double-Tongued Word Wrester, (, will be among the first to know.

For those who prefer their words well worn, two new books tour the happy hunting ground of everyday English phrases. The more ambitious is the new edition of the ``Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés" (Checkmark, $19.95), which gives the history and derivation of some 4,000 familiar expressions both ancient (eagle eye) and newly hatched (whatever). ``Cliché," in this title, does not imply scorn: While clichés can indeed go stale, says author Christine Ammer, just as often they're ``useful and picturesque shorthand that simplifies communication."

``The Real McCoy: The True Stories Behind Our Everyday Phrases" (Oxford, $19.95), though it covers some of the same ground, is less comprehensive--a beach browse, not a bookshelf reference work. It's also noticeably Anglocentric, with entries on bald as a coot and damp squib and with more explanation of boob tube than Americans would require. Then again, Anglocentric browsing may be just your cup of tea, or even the cherry on your cake.

And from British linguist David Crystal comes ``Words, Words, Words" (Oxford, $25), an introduction to the pleasures of language in 33 snapshot-size chapters. Despite the title, the book is not just a heap of words; Crystal deftly covers accents and dialects, etymologies and wordplay, Shakespeare and Joyce, text messaging and jargon, all with the delight that has fueled his long and prolific career. Just look at the places you'll go, Crystal seems to be saying, if you become a word explorer; how can you resist lacing up your linguistic hiking boots?

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