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."

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