Entry from June 19, 2012

Talk about your cheap shots! The New Republic is, as you might expect, not short of reasons for thinking that Mitt Romney is a mug — Mitt the mug — and a bum and no potential president at all next to the magazine’s hero and idol, President Barack Obama. But what are we to think of the inclusion among these reasons for despising him the fact that our boy Mitt — who, as today’s Washington Post avers, is at last beginning to make us so-recently divided Republicans warm up to him — uses words like “Gosh” and “Golly” and “Gee” in his everyday conversation? According to John McWhorter, who teaches linguistics at Columbia, such language marks Mitt out as a phony, and “out of line with the let-it-all-hangout [sic] essence of the culture” just like “the Beaver Cleaver 1950s Romney grew up in.”

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. . . To increasing numbers of modern Americans, the G-words are unusable outside of quotation marks, be these actual or implied, rather like the word perky.

I suspect that the “increasing numbers of modern Americans” are aspirational, as he supplies no evidence for such increase or timeline against which to measure it. But it would be pretty clear whom he is writing about here even without the inclusion of that curious pejorative “burgherly,” which I guess is itself a dissimulation for “bourgeois.” The “modern Americans” who would only use “Gosh” in quotation marks are the hip — those who, says Professor McWhorter, use a “warmer” sort of colloquial speech which does not eschew offense to the Almighty, nor yet to the uptight sensibilities betrayed by a burgherly aversion to the scatological.

The subtext here is that of the cult of authenticity, which sees raw unmediated expressions of emotion as the only truth and which therefore despises as dishonest or “dissimulation” any language which obviously limits its expressive powers by conformity to outdated social conventions. Or, as they’re also known, good manners. Of course, there are also conventions involved in the supposedly direct and authentic expression of the hip, as the professor himself points out in his analysis of the use of “yo” in black speech and “you know” by the President. Though conventional expressions of authentic feeling or solidarity with black subculture, these are not, however, mannerly in intention. In fact, they are the opposite of good manners, since they are not, like good manners, self-effacing but conversationally aggressive in asserting the priority of the speaker’s feelings over the sensitivities of his auditors.

It’s a nice question, isn’t it? That Obama voters predominate among those who are so hip as to regard “golly” as phony seems entirely probable, but there are well-attested signs in the polls that Obama voters are a bit thinner on the ground in this election cycle than they were four years ago. How many of the doubters and waverers, I wonder, would leap to agree with Professor McWhorter that “there are few better ways to connote the air of a mannequin in 2012 than by saying gosh with a straight face”? Or is it possible that these less-enthusiastic Obama supporters include at least some who are precisely the kind of people who regret or deplore “the let-it-all-hangout essence of the culture” and who thought in 2008 that that nice, well-spoken Mr Obama was, if not a latter-day Beaver Cleaver, at least someone whom the burgherly could feel comfortable with? If so, it’s the President who could do with a few more “Gees” rather than Romney who needs to cut them out.

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