June of an election year, and a young woman’s fancy turns to politics. As your typical left-leaning campus liberal, I usually click “like” whenever someone sends me another amusing observation of gaffes and bloopers from the right side of the aisle. But last week’s snark, “Gosh, Golly, Gee,” in The New Republic, seemed both desperate and unfair. In it, John McWhorter argues that Mitt Romney’s euphemistic “G-words” not only are “tokens of dissimulation” but also hark back to a time when the public mood was “cooler,” “less vibrant” than today, and therefore they “connote the air of a mannequin.”
Gee, I don’t know. I grew up in the Midwest. I am prone to saying “Lordy” when something confuses or astonishes me. I also say, “Oh, for crying in a bucket,” which was what my mother said instead of “Oh, for Christ’s blood,” and she was an atheist. I do not think these expressions make cool mannequins (or, indeed, cool anything) of either my mother or me. Nor do I find McWhorter’s examples of “warmer, more personal” interjectional tics convincing. He cites, for instance, an almost infinitely repeated series of “lol” from a texting conversation to argue that it expresses not laughter but “a warm shared frame of reference.”
Further, he defends Barack Obama’s “quiet but steady sampling from the kick-back realm of language” by citing his repeated “you know”s, e.g. (in his announcement of support for same-sex marriage), “This is something that, you know, we’ve talked about over the years and she, you know, she feels the same way, she feels the same way that I do.” Although the use of “you know,” by McWhorter’s own account, goes back many generations, he claims that “Woodrow Wilson wasn’t given to saying you know in discussing the League of Nations. Language has warmed up a great deal.”
But Woodrow Wilson wasn’t being interviewed on television! Nor did he say “Golly,” “Gee,” or “Gosh,” in discussing the League of Nations. For crying in a bucket, Mr. McWhorter, if you don’t know how to go about criticizing the Republican presidential candidate on the basis of his use of the English language, send me a text lol.
It is certainly true, as McWhorter observes, that public discourse has grown more casual and that examples of “taking the name of the Lord in vain” are not so proscribed as they once were. I only became aware of my own habitual use, not only of various expletives involving Judeo-Christian names for the deity, but of designated euphemisms, when I was in Pakistan recently. I would start to say, “Jesus, it’s hot,” and realize that my hosts’ theological frame of reference was somewhat different. Soon I began censoring not only “God” and “Christ,” but also “jeez,” “criminy,” “omigod,” and “lordy.” It was surprisingly easy to do, and as my speech changed, I also noticed no swearing (at least in English) on the part of my interlocutors, who did use other American slang freely.
In the end, gosh almighty, there are plenty of squeaky-clean, old-fashioned casual speakers, just as there are plenty of down-and-dirty, cutting-edge casual speakers. Mitt may certainly be “phony,” as McWhorter claims, but to find the dissembling epitomized by his G-words? Goll-lee. That’s a stretch.