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Battle of the Participles

July 18th, 2006 · 8 Comments

Since I mentioned Geoff Nunberg’s book Talking Right the other day, I noticed a weird amount of bloggy buzzing about a recent post in which Nunberg makes the slightly weird claim that the object-participle string of epithets trope (as in his subtitle, “How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show”) is the special province of the right wing, and somehow traceable to “nigger-loving, the ur-denunciation of white liberal sentimentality.” I have no idea whether the construction really is more common among conservatives, or whether it’s somehow etymologically tainted if it is, but I somehow doubt Nunberg does either. Here’s his research methodology:

On the Web, Volvo-driving liberal outnumbers pickup- or truck-driving conservative by around 50 to 1, and when you do encounter a phrase like beer-guzzling redneck it’s almost always offered either as a conservative caricature of liberal speech or in the spirit of a reclaimed epithet (as in, “…and proud of it, son!”

OK, true enough: I get 143 Google hits for “Volvo-driving liberal” and only about three each for the other constructions. But how about “bible-thumping” (261 modifying “conservative”; 244 modifying “Republican”)? Or “gay-bashing” (56 and 80)? Or “war-mongering” (108 and 238)? “Self-serving” (106 and 122)?

Contrast the results for “tax-hiking” as applied to liberals (56) and Democrats (25), many in the context of a characterization of a conservative’s view, rather than written by a conservative.

Again, I doubt there’s a huge significance to this either way, but it does suggest that there’s not some uniquely effective rhetorical tactics that Republicans have cleverly discovered. The verbal styles seem pretty parallel. If the conservative version has proved more effective, it’s because lots of people hold silly views that make them more averse to latte-sipping than to gay-bashing and bible-thumping, not because GOP consultants are masters of neuro-linguistic programming. Liberals should stop kidding themselves that some kind of brilliant silver-bullet new jingle is going to turn everything around and stay focused on doing the harder job of changing the underlying attitudes.

Tags: Language and Literature



8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dee // Jul 18, 2006 at 3:27 pm

    I searched on “ing conservatives” with 246 hits,


    “ing liberals” with 3,930 hits.

    Seems f***ing was the most common descriptor.

  • 2 Dee // Jul 18, 2006 at 3:29 pm


    “f***ing liberals” = 11,100 hits.

    “f***ing conservatives” = 2,460 hits.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Jul 18, 2006 at 4:04 pm

    And yet interesting, “Fucking Republicans”=15,500 and “Fucking Democrats”=660. So I think that’s mostly an asymmetry between the tendency to identify an ideology as the enemy on the right, vs. the party for the left. Which makes sense, when you think about it: Republicans are in power now, so ire on the left will tend to be directed that way, whereas folk on the right seem to be more irritated by the cultural power of the left (Hollywood, academia, etc.)

  • 4 jhm // Jul 18, 2006 at 7:43 pm

    Let us not forget the FOX news propensity to replace “Sen. X, voting for more pork today” for “Mr. X voted for more pork today.”

  • 5 Alex Knapp // Jul 18, 2006 at 11:28 pm

    What I never understood is why lattes = liberal.

  • 6 paul // Jul 19, 2006 at 8:28 am

    You mean, silver-bulleting won’t work? Damn!

  • 7 Bug // Jul 20, 2006 at 5:34 pm

    Here’s his research methodology

    To be fair, that’s just an anecdote he gives to make his point. He never claims it’s a methodology or says how he knows that the right “owns” these kinds of compounds — maybe he just googled it, maybe he’s got real studies to back it up. Has anybody asked him whether he’s talking from evidence in this particular case or just off-the-cuff?

  • 8 Aaron Haspel // Jul 22, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    “Knuckle-dragging,” in my experience, is rarely offered in the spirit of a redeemed epithet.