Context Changes Meaning of Popular Phrases

Context, as Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama learned Tuesday, really is everything.

Obama is not, by far, the first public figure to see his words parsed because of circumstance -- city officials have been ousted, school board superintendents have been asked to resign and elections have even been lost over phrases that at one time seemed catchy but in the end backfired.

In 1999, David Howard, an aide to Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony A. Williams, had his own words dissected and was forced to resign after sparking public outcry over his use of the term "niggardly" when describing the budget of a city in which the majority of residents are black.

Despite the public's perception, "niggardly" by definition means "ungenerous" or "meager." And even though the term had certainly been uttered before -- much like the lipstick phrase had been used before by John McCain himself -- Howard left his post under heavy scrutiny, according to reports of the incident in The Washington Post.

Obama, too, faced immense criticism from the McCain camp, which immediately called for an apology after the Illinois senator used the expression "lipstick on a pig" to describe Republican presidential candidate John McCain's claims to change politics if elected.

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The McCain camp said the comment was "very gendered," while Obama refused to issue an apology and held his ground saying, "The McCain camp would much rather have this [campaign] be about phony and foolish diversions."

Kathleen Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said that while the lipstick phrase -- known to be a reference to making an issue look better than it actually is by "dressing it up -- " has been spoken many times before by politicians, the circumstance in which it is used can change how people react to it.

"Here's what we know about communication," said Jamieson. "Meaning doesn't exist in what people say, it exists in a combination of things, including what the reader hears and the context in which something is said."

What made Obama's use of the phrase so different, several political rhetoric analysts said, was the change in situation: The Republican's vice presidential candidate is not only a woman but one who referred to lipstick in a speech the week before.

Similarly, Howard's use of "niggardly" hit a nerve among black residents in D.C., where it might not have in other places.

"That remark would have been totally unnoticed were it not for Sarah Palin," said American University history professor Allan Lichtman, referring to the Alaska governor's lipstick line during her speech at the Republican National Convention. "What's the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?" she asked. "Lipstick."

"The inference became that [Palin] used the pit bull-lipstick comment, and so this [line by Obama] is a slur against her and sexist," said Lichtman.

Lichtman, like Jamieson, said that in speech, "context is everything."

Take D.C.'s Robert Shoenberg, for example, whose reputation was tarnished after he introduced a black school superintendent named Jerome Clark as an "800-pound gorilla" during a school board meeting in 1997. According to The Washington Post, "The meeting was about to start when Clark, who is taller than 6 feet and weighs more than 250 pounds, entered the room and Shoenberg said, 'Here's my 800-pound gorilla.'"

Shoenberg defended himself by saying that he "hadn't meant anything by it" and was only trying to "break the ice," according to the reports.

The term "is usually used to describe someone who is a powerful individual," said Lichtman.

"But obviously, using the term 'gorilla' in the context of an African-American [backfired]," he added.

Barry Popik, a consultant for the Oxford English Dictionary, recalled the time when sports announcer Howard Cosell referred to a Washington Redskins wide receiver as "monkeylike" -- a reference to the player's speed -- during a 1982 football game.

"'Monkey' is a popular term -- 'monkey' business, 'monkeying' around' -- but Alvin Garrett, the Washington Redskins player, was small and, yes, black," said Popik.

"Cosell said that he hadn't meant any racist implications. [He] had long celebrated black athletes such as [Muhammad] Ali and Jackie Robinson," said Popik, "and if Alvin Garrett had been white, no one would have said anything about the 'monkey' report."

And however many times Cosell had described another player's speed and agility as "monkeylike" didn't matter when the context changed and the player he was referring to was black, said Popik.

He cited it as yet another instance in which context mattered: Cosell was eventually pushed out of football announcing and saw his job responsibilities diminish.

Like so many other phrases that have slowly disappeared from the American language -- such as "to call a spade a spade," which is considered now to have negative racial connotations -- rhetoric experts predict that the now-infamous lipstick phrase may not dare be uttered again.

"The 'lipstick' phrase has definitely seen its day," said Lichtman.