Alex Steer

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Obama and the word terrorism

412 words

This post on the PR Watch discusses the accusation that Barack Obama avoided using the words 'terrorism' and 'terrorist' in his recent weekly address. The idea was apparently discussed in a debate on Chris Matthews's Hardball (a US political talk show on MSNBC) on January 2nd. The notion that the word 'terrorism' is taboo for the Obama administration has also been floated elsewhere by conservative political commentators.

The author of the PR Watch post, Lisa Graves, shows rather admirably that 'terrorist' or a variant is used 'at least six times' in the official transcript of the speech. The Politifact article linked to above also provides some clarity on the use of 'war on terror(ism)'. The strong version of the claim - that Obama won't use the word terrorism - is highly refutable.

As a very simple contribution to setting some of the facts straight, I've trawled the 2002-9 corpus of Obama's speeches available here. The results are:

TermOccurrencesSpeeches
Terrorism7939
Terrorist5824
Terrorists9845

Though it may be that this administration is striving to use the term less than the preceding Bush administration (where it was overused), these numbers does not suggest avoidance. It would be good to compare instances of it in George W Bush's speeches, though that would require a more comprehensive corpus of text for both presidents. Meanwhile, this piece by Jeremy Faro of Landor offers some reasons for thinking that there may be an effort underway by the Obama administration to redefine America's public vocabulary. If there is, though, it's not a simple case of replacing unpalatable old words with glossy Newspeak, but of reframing entire political conversations, a much more interesting and challenging task, and one that requires more careful scrutiny.

# Alex Steer (05/01/2010)