Language Watch: Is Gibbs Striking the Wrong “Denote”?

By Nitya

Aug 19, 2009 5:53pm

*(Note: do not read any further if you are anti-semantic. This is a nit-picky, petty post about an issue of no importance in the scheme of things.)

The word is “denote.” And White House press secretary Robert Gibbs sure likes it a lot, which has not gone un-denoted by political observers and the White House press corps.

Today, prompted by an ally of President Obama’s who wanted to gently nudge Gibbs to stop using the word so darn much – and so uniquely — we asked some language experts to weigh in.

We grabbed the three examples of Gibbs using the word in Tuesday’s press briefing.

"I don't think I said that," Gibbs said, when asked about the Mid-east peace process. "I simply denoted that we were pleased and the President has been pleased that progress has been made."

Later in that same briefing, of President Obama and former President Bill Clinton, Gibbs said that he had “certainly denoted that they've had conversations.”

Asked about suggestions that health insurance co-ops would actually leave more Americans without health insurance than currently exist, Gibbs said, "I'd have to look at something that denoted that more people would be uninsured as a result of that."

“The use of ‘denote’ is wrong in all those examples,” says Ann Goldstein, head of the copy department at The New Yorker.

Goldstein notes that the Merriam-Webster definition of denote is:

1) to serve as an indication of : betoken, as in “the swollen bellies that denote starvation”;
2) to serve as an arbitrary mark for, as in “red flares denoting danger”;
3) to make known : announce, as in “his crestfallen look denoted his distress”; and
4) to serve as a linguistic expression of the notion of : mean.

Goldstein says that if “a writer handed in a story with the word used that way I would change it. There are various correct possibilities (since it’s clear from the context what Gibbs means to say). For instance, in the first two examples he could have said ‘noted,’ or simply ‘said,” or, in the second, ‘pointed out’; in the third example a better word might be ‘showed.’”

“It strikes me that one word that would fit all of three examples is ‘indicate,’ which has the sort of vagueness and imprecision that a press secretary might tend to favor,” Goldstein adds.

Writes David Kurtz at Talking Points Memo: “Gibbs' use of ‘denotes’ is like a nervous tic.”

It’s a sort of tell, Kurtz wrote, indicating  that “he's scrambling a bit — such as when he was faced with the outcry over the administration's decision not to release more photos of the abuse of detainees.”

To wit: “The photos don't denote the existence of the investigations …the existence of the detainee abuse cases is not denoted by the photos…the existence of the photos doesn't denote — isn't the only thing that denotes the existence of an investigation.”

“It’s a stylistic variant that he chose, possibly to sound more official or intelligent,” says Georgetown professor of Linguistics Emeritus Roger Shuy  who says Gibbs seems to be using the word “denote” as a way to say “note.”

Deborah Tannen, another professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of a number of best-selling books on language says Gibbs "seems to be using ‘denoted’ to mean ‘explained,’ ‘claimed,’ or ‘stated.’ It strikes me as an example of an impulse some people have to prefer a formal-sounding word to a common one.  (It's funny to me because I am always trying to find common words to express technical concepts).  ‘Said’ or ‘explain’ sounds less formal and impressive than ‘denote.’”

Shuy postulates: “Denotation contrasts with connotation. Gibbs seems to use ‘denote’ as a fancy way of saying ‘announced’ or ‘noted. He could be trying to avoid any possible understanding by the reporters that he is  arguing against any possible  connotations.”

But is this a word favored in Washington, DC, by officials?

Apparently not.

Using the website CapitolWords, Jeff Connor-Linton, an associate professor of Linguistics at Georgetown, plugged in the relative frequency of use of the words “denote,” “note,” “say,” and “indicate” in the Congressional Record since 2002.

“Note” has been used 436 times, “say” 2,850 times, “indicate” 88 times.

“Denote” has been used zero times.

Connor-Linton calls the absence of the use of the word “striking.”

Using the University of California-Santa Barbara’s “American Presidency Project — which includes papers of presidents back to George Washington – ABC News counted use of the words “denote,” “denotes,” “denoted,” or “denoting,” by previous White House officials (not including executive orders or fact sheets).

From President George Washington through President George W. Bush, denote or a form thereof was used only fifteen times by White House officials in official events, according to the American Presidency Project’s database.

After that there is a veritable “denote” explosion.

Gibbs used the word “denote,” or a form of it, 143 times during press briefings and gaggles from Inauguration until Wednesday of this week.  (Which is not to say that he’s mis-used it 143 times.)

One final, er, word on the matter.

“Language is always changing,” Connor-Linton says. “The dictionary gives you a synchronic representation of a word's meanings and usages at a given point in time (some years before the edition of the dictionary was published–they lag reality and are conservative in any case). Gibbs may be reflecting a new use/meaning of 'denote' or he may actually start such a change himself.”

Adds Tannen: “Words do change meaning through usage: people begin to use a word in a way that doesn't compute (e.g. ‘I could care less’ to mean ‘I couldn't care less’) and it becomes standard usage; the meaning adapts to the usage. It will be interesting to see if ‘denote’ is used by others in these new ways, in which case the meaning will follow.”

In other words, Gibbs might be leading the charge for a whole new generation to use the word “denote” in the way he means it – regardless of what the word actually means.

-jpt

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