#15. Mr. Trump and the English Language
Jayna Tokie Tanaka
The outrageousness of the first few weeks of the Donald J. Trump presidency has made everyone sit up and pay attention. If people doze, they might miss something important. First, there was the inauguration which drew fewer people than the protest march against it the next day. Then, there was the executive order banning immigrants from seven “terrorist-producing” countries. The last few days included the resignation of the National Security Adviser accused of illegally having contact with the Russian government, the refusal of several people to accept nominations for empty cabinet posts, and an impromptu presidential press conference, the likes of which reporters say they have never before experienced. A very interesting aspect of all of this has been the English language: how it is used by Mr. Trump himself, that used by his associates, and how the media are having fun with his name.
The language Mr. Trump uses actually has a name, “Trumpese.” The Japanese interpreters who work hard to translate what he says for the Japanese media say their job is difficult, to say the least. In a February 18 article in The Japan Times, Chikako Tsuruta, a professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Languages says, “He rarely speaks logically…” His phraseology, says the writer of the article, is “… simple, characterized by repetition, easy grammar and elementary-level vocabulary.” The Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute studied Mr. Trump’s language and concluded that his “lexical richness,” his vocabulary, is at the seventh-grade level, the lowest of all U.S. presidents. Moreover, his “grammatical level” is at grade 5.7, just a little better than George W. Bush. “Trumpese” makes use of easy words which his audience, meaning the people who voted for him, like to hear. The most frequent words he uses, according to the online dictionary Your Dictionary, include “win” and “we.” His “we” includes those who helped him win the presidency and continue to support him. On the other hand, “they” are the people who oppose him (people who did not vote for him, media people, academics), and “they” are “stupid,” “weak,” “morons,” and “losers.” “They” are also concerned about “political correctness,” which Mr. Trump thinks is “bad” because he is so “smart.”
While Mr. Trump, the boss, has Trumpese, the language of his associates has been called Orwellian. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four describes a world where all words may mean exactly the opposite of what is generally thought they mean. When we read the slogans used by the people in charge, they create confusion in our minds because they distort so radically what we may have always believed of these words. “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength” are used to permanently keep the people submissive, to thwart any thoughts of protest or rebellion. In the case of the Trump presidency, this “Orwellian” aspect became evident only days after the inauguration. On January 21, the day after the inauguration, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at a press conference, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration. Period. Both in person and around the globe.” These words were immediately countered by all the major news media with photographs showing the difference between the audience which gathered for Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration and the audience for Mr. Trump’s. The following day, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway asserted that Mr. Spicer had given “alternative facts” to describe the numbers in the audience. In other words, he lied? When we think of the word “fact,” we think that it is something that is true and cannot be altered. However, in the world of Mr. Trump’s associates, there is not one fact, but there can be one more, or several others, which describe the same situation.
Finally, the media have had fun using Mr. Trump’s name in their commentaries. “Trump” is very convenient for this because it can be used both as a noun and a verb. As a noun, it is the card in a pack of playing cards which beats other cards when playing a card game. The verb means “to beat someone in something,” which comes from using the trump card in a game to win the game. As a noun, The Japan Times on Sunday used “Trump card: Japan casts a wary eye on future with U.S. president” as the title of an article by staff writer Eric Johnston. The article was about Japan’s future relations with the U.S. and how the U.S. may use its trump card, if it has one. As a verb, William Pesek of Barron’s Asia wrote a column for The Japan Times entitled, “Will Japan get Trumped next?” asking whether it was Japan’s turn to be bashed by Mr. Trump. The title of Roger Cohen’s article in The New York Times International Edition was “Velocity trumps veracity,” referring to the speed at which the Trump administration was pushing its policies without regard to truth or legality. The last two examples are further plays on words using the president’s last name. The first is a subtitle from The Economist: “Talking Trumpish.” This is a made-up adjective and the article warns that not paying special attention to what Mr. Trump says may be dangerous. The second is by Keven Rafferty in The Japan Times. He writes, “Indeed, Abe had better beware of being ‘Trumpled.’” He explains that this is a portmanteau word combining the words “trample” and “Trump.”
Indeed, it seems to me that there has never been so much confusion about the language of the president and his associates in the first few days of a presidency. The first few weeks have seemed to many people to be both incredible and frightening. Is this what we must endure for four more years? Will this unbelievable use of language become so sinister that it will change all the notions of what our world should be like? Everyone will have to sit up and really pay attention. This story will surely continue.
Jayna Tokie Tanaka（ジェイナ・トキエ・タナカ）