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Ahead of the State of the Union, a lexicographer analyzes Trump's impact on language

Trump's rhetoric has been the gift that keeps on giving for linguists.
Image: President Trump And First Lady Melania Depart The White House
Censoring the president's comments does no one any favors.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

On Jan. 11, the Washington Post reported on a closed-door immigration-policy meeting President Trump had with a group of senators. The substance of the meeting itself was eclipsed entirely by the report that the president had asked why we had so many immigrants from “shithole countries.”

The Washington Post ran the word in its headline, and the media coverage of Trump’s comment soon got meta, as various news outlets wrestled with whether or not to report Trump’s unexpurgated, unedited comment. Some did, others refused at first, and some relented later. NPR reversed their initial policy to not say or print the word, but not before having their Standards and Practices Editor, Mark Memmot, on All Things Considered to explain why using the word on the air was necessary: “We do think it's important to the story. [...] Say it once. Move on, and then talk about what it means to the issues that were being discussed at that meeting in the White House.”

The president’s comments drew immediate scrutiny and criticism from politicians and pundits. But the fallout had a very different connotation for an oft-overlooked group: lexicographers. For us, the accurate and unedited reporting of the president’s words is the only thing that enables us to do our job: to describe the English language — good, bad and ugly — as it’s actually used.

Many people assume that the dictionary is the gatekeeper of English, deciding which words are worthy or honorable enough to be legitimized with a dictionary entry. This is perfectly, exactly wrong. If a word has enough use in our language, it merits entry into a dictionary. Any word. That means profanity, too. Trump’s use of “shithole” underscores an important linguistic point: undesirable or objectionable words do get used in important contexts by important people. To ignore them for the sake of propriety is to present an incomplete picture of what the English language is.

Linguists are often asked to gauge how Trump is changing English. And on the eve of his first State of the Union, it's a subject worth discussing.

Linguists and lexicographers are often asked to gauge how Trump is changing English. And on the eve of his first State of the Union, it's a subject worth discussing. But his impact on language isn’t necessarily the one that everyone assumes (degradation). What he has done is inspired people to pay more attention to language and to really think about the shades of meaning that individual words have. What does “complicit” really mean; what is “collusion” and what does Trump mean when he claims there was “no collusion”?

Lexicographers don’t make up the words in a dictionary: every entry is based on a word’s accumulated use in written prose. That means that when we sit down to describe how a word is used, we’re not consulting our own thoughts or feelings about that word, but relying on actual evidence. Imagine that English is like a river, made up of thousands of different currents. Each current is a different type of English: slang from the 1950s, business jargon, Twitter vocab, generic vocab, presidential vocab. A lexicographer’s job is to describe a good cross-section of that river, and to, as accurately as possible, orient a reader as to which current it sits in. If a word is under-reported in print, or only shows up in one of those currents (say, National Lampoon movie scripts), a lexicographer might miss it entirely or mislabel it.

Lexicographers also can’t make any assumptions about what a bowdlerized or euphemized profanity might actually be, because everyone’s threshold for profanity or vulgarity is different. When the tapes of President Lyndon B. Johnson ordering pants were released in 2011, one venue called his language “very graphic” and another deemed it “intimate.” What word was both “very graphic” and “intimate”? “Bunghole,” which, as a lexicographer who has defined “shithole,” I find neither intimate nor very graphic.

And this underscores another important point. We like our presidents to sound presidential, and when they don’t, we often try to cover over their sentiments with a veil of respectability. While this may make the editors of the New York Times more comfortable, I would argue it does no one any favors, lexicographer or not. Lyndon B. Johnson ordering pants is different from Donald J. Trump discussing immigration policy with lawmakers, but both deserve to be reported on honestly. It is important to know exactly what words our leaders use, regardless of how crass or vulgar we find them. It fills out not just the story of English, but the story of an administration.

We like our presidents to sound presidential, and when they don’t, we often try to cover over their sentiments with a veil of respectability.

Trump's rhetorical scandal has been the gift that keeps on giving to lexicographers and linguists. In the days following the initial report, two senators in the immigration meeting averred that Trump had not said “shithole” but “shithouse” before backing off the very idea and asserting that he hadn’t said anything untoward at all. Was the latter option any better, denotatively and connotatively, than the former? No: linguists will tell you they are actually synonyms of one another.

On Jan. 16, Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told senators that she did not hear the president use that particular word, but that he did use “tough words”; when questioned further, she said that “general profanity” had been in use during the meeting. Which words did she consider profane, and what language did Trump use that it merited special mention by her as “tough”? On the same day, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a White House press briefing that the president “hasn’t said he didn’t use strong language” but was “not going to apologize,” signaling that whatever “strong language” he used, there was nothing objectionable in whatever he said.

There has been, in short, a lot of euphemistic sidestepping in an attempt to explain away what seems to be some too-straightforward language.

This, then, is just the latest example of how Trump is impacting language. For better or for worse, the president’s use of the vernacular has made language exciting again. Lexicographers were tickled to see that the word “fact” was probably scrutinized more in 2017 than “is” was during the Clinton impeachment hearings. “Shithole” (and “shithouse”) shouldn’t be exempt from that scrutiny, either. And while it's unlikely that the president is going to go off script (or teleprompter) during his address tomorrow, you can bet that if he does, lexicographers everywhere will be eagerly taking notes.

Kory Stamper has been a lexicographer for 20 years, and has written about the intersection between language and dictionaries since 2010. Her book "Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries" will be released in paperback by Vintage this spring.