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

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  1. One of my favorite words in the whole
    of the Oxford English Dictionary
  2. is "snollygoster,"
  3. just because it sounds so good.
  4. And what snollygoster means
    is "a dishonest politician."
  5. Although there was a 19th-century
    newspaper editor
  6. who defined it rather better when he said,
  7. "A snollygoster is a fellow
    who seeks office
  8. regardless of party,
    platform or principle,
  9. and who, when he wins,
  10. gets there by the sheer force
    of monumental talknophical assumnancy."
  11. (Laughter)
  12. Now, I have no idea
    what "talknophical" is.
  13. Something to do with words, I assume.
  14. But it's very important that words
    are at the center of politics,
  15. and all politicians know
    they have to try and control language.
  16. It wasn't until, for example, 1771
  17. that the British Parliament
    allowed newspapers to report
  18. the exact words that were said
    in the debating chamber.
  19. And this was actually
    all down to the bravery
  20. of a guy with the extraordinary
    name of Brass Crosby,
  21. who took on Parliament.
  22. And he was thrown into the Tower of London
  23. and imprisoned,
  24. but he was brave enough,
  25. he was brave enough
    to take them on, and in the end,
  26. he had such popular support
    in London that he won.
  27. And it was only a few years later
  28. that we have the first recorded use
    of the phrase "as bold as brass."
  29. Most people think
    that's down to the metal.
  30. It's not; it's down to a campaigner
    for the freedom of the press.
  31. But to really show you
    how words and politics interact,
  32. I want to take you back
    to the United States of America,
  33. just after they'd achieved independence.
  34. And they had to face the question
  35. of what to call
    George Washington, their leader.
  36. They didn't know.
  37. What do you call the leader
    of a republican country?
  38. And this was debated
    in Congress for ages and ages.
  39. And there were all sorts
    of suggestions on the table,
  40. which might have made it.
  41. I mean, some people
    wanted him to be called
  42. "Chief Magistrate Washington,"
  43. and other people,
    "His Highness, George Washington,"
  44. and other people,
  45. "Protector of the Liberties
  46. of the People of the United States
    of America Washington."
  47. Not that catchy.
  48. Some people just wanted
    to call him king --
  49. it was tried and tested.
  50. They weren't even being monarchical,
  51. they had the idea that you could
    be elected king for a fixed term.
  52. And, you know, it could have worked.
  53. And everybody got insanely bored,
  54. because this debate
    went on for three weeks.
  55. I read a diary of this poor senator
    who just keeps coming back,
  56. "Still on this subject."
  57. And the reason for the delay
    and the boredom
  58. was that the House of Representatives
    were against the Senate.
  59. The House of Representatives didn't want
    Washington to get drunk on power.
  60. They didn't want to call him "king,"
    in case that gave him ideas,
  61. or his successor ideas.
  62. So they wanted to give him
    the humblest, meagerest,
  63. most pathetic title
    that they could think of.
  64. And that title ...
  65. was "President."
  66. (Laughter)
  67. "President." They didn't invent the title.
  68. I mean, it existed before,
  69. but it just meant somebody
    who presides over a meeting.
  70. It was like the foreman of the jury.
  71. And it didn't have much more grandeur
  72. than the term "foreman" or "overseer."
  73. There were occasional presidents
    of little colonial councils
  74. and bits of government,
  75. but it was really a nothing title.
  76. And that's why the Senate objected to it.
  77. They said, "That's ridiculous!
    You can't call him 'President.'
  78. This guy has to go and sign treaties
    and meet foreign dignitaries.
  79. Who's going to take him seriously
    if he's got a silly little title
  80. like 'President of the United
    States of America'?"
  81. (Laughter)
  82. And after three weeks
    of debate, in the end,
  83. the Senate did not cave in.
  84. Instead, they agreed to use
    the title "President" for now.
  85. But they also wanted
    it absolutely set down
  86. that they didn't agree with it,
  87. from a decent respect for the opinions
    and practice of civilized nations,
  88. whether under republican
    or monarchical forms of government,
  89. whose custom it is to annex,
  90. through the office
    of the Chief Magistrate,
  91. titles of respectability --
  92. not bloody "President."
  93. And that, in the intercourse
    with foreign nations,
  94. the majesty of the people
    of the United States
  95. may not be hazarded
    by an appearance of singularity --
  96. i.e., we don't want to look
    like bloody weirdos.
  97. Now, you can learn
    three interesting things from this.
  98. First of all -- and this is my favorite --
  99. is that, so far as I've ever
    been able to find out,
  100. the Senate has never formally
    endorsed the title of President.
  101. Barack Obama, President Obama,
    is there on borrowed time,
  102. just waiting for the Senate
    to spring into action.
  103. (Laughter)
  104. The second thing you can learn
  105. is that, when a government says
    that this is a temporary measure --
  106. (Laughter)
  107. you can still be waiting 223 years later.
  108. But the third thing you can learn --
    and this is the really important one,
  109. the point I want to leave you on --
  110. is that the title, "President
    of the United States of America,"
  111. doesn't sound that humble
    at all these days, does it?
  112. Something to do
    with the slightly over 5,000
  113. nuclear warheads he has at his disposal
  114. and the largest economy in the world
  115. and a fleet of drones
    and all that sort of stuff.
  116. Reality and history
    have endowed that title with grandeur.
  117. And so the Senate won in the end.
  118. They got their title of respectability.
  119. And also, the Senate's other worry,
    the appearance of singularity --
  120. well, it was a singularity back then.
  121. But now, do you know
    how many nations have a president?
  122. A hundred and forty-seven.
  123. All because they want
    to sound like the guy
  124. who's got the 5,000 nuclear warheads, etc.
  125. And so, in the end, the Senate won
  126. and the House of Representatives lost ...
  127. because nobody's going to feel that humble
  128. when they're told that they are now
  129. the President of the United
    States of America.
  130. And that's the important lesson
    I think you can take away,
  131. and the one I want to leave you with.
  132. Politicians try to pick and use words
    to shape and control reality,
  133. but in fact,
  134. reality changes words far more
    than words can ever change reality.
  135. Thank you very much.