22 January 2009

Neologisms, Improvisation, and the Inauguration

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. re-administering the oath
of office to Barack Obama on Wednesday in the White House.
Photograpph ~ Pete Souza/The White House.

I have to admit that I find this story incredibly irritating. Did any one seriously doubt that Obama is President? Did anyone seriously doubt that he'd taken the oath of office? Does he have nothing better to do? Just who was raising worries about whether the inadvertent reversal of words in the initial ceremony cast doubt on the legitimacy of the outcome? When will we stop taking wingnuts seriously?

On the other hand, this raises an interesting set of issues about the ways ritual and language work, not just in politics, but generally. Things happen, inadvertently as in this instance, or by design, and we - participants in a ritual or conversation - depart from 'normal' practice. In language we call such departures neologisms. They are expressions that are not quite right but which relevant parties are able to understand well enough. And we talk about how they can be exploited - much poetry and a lot of politics involves intentional exploitation. But lots of everyday usage allows speakers to exploit neologisms to say something innovative or new, to make themselves clear or to simply go on - even though what was said was not 'normal' everyone understands well enough what the others mean. On the Mall Tuesday, and in all the rooms around the country where people watched the inauguration on TV, everyone - despite the inadvertent improvisation - knew well enough (by which I mean exactly) what Roberts and Obama meant.

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