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Humpty Dumpty linguistics

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“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’”

Occasionally, our language and pesky dictionary definitions seem to pose problems for our elected officials. President Bush, educated as he was, often seemed hopelessly tongue-tied. We all remember President Clinton’s “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” That’s facile and interesting, but it falls under the linguistic category of “parsing.”

Other, more recent examples are not as subtle and are more troubling – falling into the far more dangerous category of “expediency.”

In an interview on ABC, (9/20/2009) George Stephanopoulos asked President Obama about charges made that the health care plan that was (then) being debated in Congress amounted to a tax. Stephanopoulos asked how the president could square this with his oft-repeated campaign stump speech pledge against raising taxes on people earning $250,000 or less.

The president strongly disagreed, and dismissed the question by saying that his opposition thinks that everything he proposes is a tax. Despite being challenged by the dictionary definition of a “tax,” the president was steadfast in his insistence saying it is “absolutely not a tax.”

Ten months later, 20 states Attorneys General are suing, arguing that the federal government doesn’t have the authority to mandate the purchase of health insurance. The government’s original defense was to be the ever-broadening interpretation of the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Anticipating the challenge, lawmakers added language to the bill, stating that it “substantially affects interstate commerce.”

Unfortunately, the fine folks at the Justice Department didn’t think that was their best defense, so their strategy appears to be based on their belief that the individual mandate is – wait for it – a tax! I can’t wait to see the language the White House uses to explain this one.

Check out more blog entries from David Saltzman.


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