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What's a snollygoster? A short lesson in political speak | Mark Forsyth | TEDxHousesofParliament

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    One of my favorite words in the whole
    of the Oxford English Dictionary
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    is "snollygoster,"
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    just because it sounds so good.
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    And what snollygoster means
    is "a dishonest politician."
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    Although there was a 19th-century
    newspaper editor
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    who defined it rather better when he said,
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    "A snollygoster is a fellow
    who seeks office
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    regardless of party,
    platform or principle,
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    and who, when he wins,
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    gets there by the sheer force
    of monumental talknophical assumnancy."
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    (Laughter)
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    Now, I have no idea
    what "talknophical" is.
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    Something to do with words, I assume.
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    But it's very important that words
    are at the center of politics,
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    and all politicians know
    they have to try and control language.
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    It wasn't until, for example, 1771
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    that the British Parliament
    allowed newspapers to report
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    the exact words that were said
    in the debating chamber.
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    And this was actually
    all down to the bravery
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    of a guy with the extraordinary
    name of Brass Crosby,
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    who took on Parliament.
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    And he was thrown into the Tower of London
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    and imprisoned,
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    but he was brave enough,
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    he was brave enough
    to take them on, and in the end,
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    he had such popular support
    in London that he won.
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    And it was only a few years later
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    that we have the first recorded use
    of the phrase "as bold as brass."
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    Most people think
    that's down to the metal.
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    It's not; it's down to a campaigner
    for the freedom of the press.
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    But to really show you
    how words and politics interact,
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    I want to take you back
    to the United States of America,
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    just after they'd achieved independence.
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    And they had to face the question
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    of what to call
    George Washington, their leader.
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    They didn't know.
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    What do you call the leader
    of a republican country?
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    And this was debated
    in Congress for ages and ages.
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    And there were all sorts
    of suggestions on the table,
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    which might have made it.
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    I mean, some people
    wanted him to be called
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    "Chief Magistrate Washington,"
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    and other people,
    "His Highness, George Washington,"
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    and other people,
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    "Protector of the Liberties
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    of the People of the United States
    of America Washington."
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    Not that catchy.
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    Some people just wanted
    to call him king --
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    it was tried and tested.
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    They weren't even being monarchical,
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    they had the idea that you could
    be elected king for a fixed term.
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    And, you know, it could have worked.
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    And everybody got insanely bored,
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    because this debate
    went on for three weeks.
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    I read a diary of this poor senator
    who just keeps coming back,
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    "Still on this subject."
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    And the reason for the delay
    and the boredom
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    was that the House of Representatives
    were against the Senate.
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    The House of Representatives didn't want
    Washington to get drunk on power.
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    They didn't want to call him "king,"
    in case that gave him ideas,
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    or his successor ideas.
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    So they wanted to give him
    the humblest, meagerest,
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    most pathetic title
    that they could think of.
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    And that title ...
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    was "President."
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    (Laughter)
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    "President." They didn't invent the title.
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    I mean, it existed before,
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    but it just meant somebody
    who presides over a meeting.
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    It was like the foreman of the jury.
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    And it didn't have much more grandeur
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    than the term "foreman" or "overseer."
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    There were occasional presidents
    of little colonial councils
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    and bits of government,
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    but it was really a nothing title.
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    And that's why the Senate objected to it.
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    They said, "That's ridiculous!
    You can't call him 'President.'
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    This guy has to go and sign treaties
    and meet foreign dignitaries.
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    Who's going to take him seriously
    if he's got a silly little title
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    like 'President of the United
    States of America'?"
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    (Laughter)
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    And after three weeks
    of debate, in the end,
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    the Senate did not cave in.
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    Instead, they agreed to use
    the title "President" for now.
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    But they also wanted
    it absolutely set down
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    that they didn't agree with it,
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    from a decent respect for the opinions
    and practice of civilized nations,
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    whether under republican
    or monarchical forms of government,
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    whose custom it is to annex,
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    through the office
    of the Chief Magistrate,
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    titles of respectability --
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    not bloody "President."
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    And that, in the intercourse
    with foreign nations,
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    the majesty of the people
    of the United States
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    may not be hazarded
    by an appearance of singularity --
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    i.e., we don't want to look
    like bloody weirdos.
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    Now, you can learn
    three interesting things from this.
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    First of all -- and this is my favorite --
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    is that, so far as I've ever
    been able to find out,
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    the Senate has never formally
    endorsed the title of President.
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    Barack Obama, President Obama,
    is there on borrowed time,
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    just waiting for the Senate
    to spring into action.
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    (Laughter)
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    The second thing you can learn
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    is that, when a government says
    that this is a temporary measure --
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    (Laughter)
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    you can still be waiting 223 years later.
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    But the third thing you can learn --
    and this is the really important one,
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    the point I want to leave you on --
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    is that the title, "President
    of the United States of America,"
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    doesn't sound that humble
    at all these days, does it?
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    Something to do
    with the slightly over 5,000
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    nuclear warheads he has at his disposal
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    and the largest economy in the world
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    and a fleet of drones
    and all that sort of stuff.
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    Reality and history
    have endowed that title with grandeur.
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    And so the Senate won in the end.
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    They got their title of respectability.
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    And also, the Senate's other worry,
    the appearance of singularity --
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    well, it was a singularity back then.
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    But now, do you know
    how many nations have a president?
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    A hundred and forty-seven.
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    All because they want
    to sound like the guy
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    who's got the 5,000 nuclear warheads, etc.
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    And so, in the end, the Senate won
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    and the House of Representatives lost ...
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    because nobody's going to feel that humble
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    when they're told that they are now
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    the President of the United
    States of America.
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    And that's the important lesson
    I think you can take away,
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    and the one I want to leave you with.
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    Politicians try to pick and use words
    to shape and control reality,
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    but in fact,
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    reality changes words far more
    than words can ever change reality.
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    Thank you very much.
Title:
What's a snollygoster? A short lesson in political speak | Mark Forsyth | TEDxHousesofParliament
Description:

Most politicians choose their words carefully, to shape the reality they hope to create. But does it work? Etymologist Mark Forsyth shares a few entertaining word-origin stories from British and American history (for instance, did you ever wonder how George Washington became "president"?) and draws a surprising conclusion.

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at http://ted.com/tedx

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDxTalks
Duration:
06:36

English subtitles

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