Dept. of Word Lists

Vegas Vengeance: The Final Round

The final Presidential Debate of this campaign season took place on October 19th in Las Vegas, Nevada. The candidates managed to combine substantive policy discussions and name calling throughout a tense ninety minutes.

It was a strange mix: laying out an economic plan one minute and engaging in schoolyard taunting of the "I know you are, but what am I?" variety the next. This blog post provides some linguistic highlights from the debate, and consult this list of our top twenty words heard during the UNLV debate if you are hankering for more.

Unusual Usage

During a discussion of her economic plan, Secretary Clinton used the verb cost in an interesting way:

I have said repeatedly throughout this campaign, I will not raise taxes on anyone making $250,000 or less. I also will not add a penny to the debt. I have costed out what I'm going to do.

Usually the verb cost is employed when the price of something is being discussed: When I say a book costs $12.95, I am referring to an already set price. Secretary Clinton, in the above quote, is using cost to mean that she has calculated the prices of every element in her plan; she has done the math on what everything is going to cost. Although they are not exact synonyms, most often the verb afford will be used to communicate what Clinton uses cost to express here. If you’re planning a vacation, with all its potentially pricey elements, you could say that you’ve looked at the numbers and you can afford it, or you’ve costed it out and it won’t put too much of a strain on your wallet.

While talking about the Supreme Court and the Second Amendment, Donald Trump used the word replica in a strange way:

I believe if my opponent should win this race... we will have a Second Amendment which will be a very, very small replica of what it is right now.

A replica is a copy, something that is not the original. Replicas are exact, or at least very good, copies, but it is usually easy for the trained eye to spot replicas of say, jewels or famous paintings. It is unclear what a replica of an amendment would be. It is clear what Mr. Trump means here: he thinks that the Second Amendment would lack all power if his opponent is elected. And, maybe he intended to say that the amendment would be "a pale imitation" of itself, or something of that nature, and a rough synonym for imitation, like replica, came to mind. Of course, we will never know for sure, but it is fascinating to chart these linguistic events that occur when people speak spontaneously.


When Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton’s State Department of misplacing 6 billion dollars, this was her response:

Well, first of all, what he just said about the State Department is not only untrue, it's been debunked numerous times.

To debunk means to expose something as untrue. Clinton is claiming that Trump’s accusation has already been proven false and that its falsehood has been established and is, in fact, old news. Mr. Trump also claimed that the recent accusations of sexual misconduct against him had also been debunked. Bunk refers to something that is false, so to debunk means to get all the bunk out of something, in a way similar to how delouse or decontaminate mean to get all the bugs and vermin out of something. In these situations, when a story is debunked, there is often nothing left of it; the story was false and therefore when it is completely debunked, there will be no story to speak of.

Usually quite perceptive on matters of language, the gang at Seinfeld got a little confused with debunk vs. bunk. For the record, George and Jerry are correct in the below:

Jerry: I thought the whole dream of dating a doctor was debunked.

Elaine: No, It’s not debunked, it’s totally bunk.

Jerry: Isn’t bunk bad? Like, that’s a lot of bunk.

George: No something is bunk and then you debunk it.

Episode 142 "The Abstinence"

Elaine misinterprets bunk and debunk as opposites, rather than picking up on the "removal" relation that George notices, which is also present in items like nasal decongestants, which remove congestion, or car window defoggers, which clear fogged up windows.


Donald Trump characterized the economy under Barack Obama as stagnant:

Look, our country is stagnant. We've lost our jobs. We've lost our businesses.

I pass factories that were thriving 20, 25 years ago and because of the bill that her husband signed and she blessed a hundred percent, [North American Free Trade Agreement] it is just horrible what's happened to these people in these communities.

By using a word like stagnant, Mr. Trump is applying a metaphor of motion to the realm of the economy and jobs. Stagnant refers to something dull and sluggish, that has no activity or life in it. You’ll often hear politicians or economists say that it is important to get the economy "moving again"; it is, at least metaphorically, stagnation they are trying to avoid. Stagnant can also refer to still, unmoving water, where it is often associated with a bad smell as well. Stagnant ultimately comes from a Latin word stagnatum, which means "standing water, pond or swamp" and may be related to a Greek word stazein, which means "to ooze or drip." That Greek word is the source of the English word stalactite, those hanging formations found on the roof of a cave.


A point of sharp disagreement during the debate was the subject of how to handle the millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States. Donald Trump has said he wants to secure the borders of the country before anything else, but he has considered using a "deportation force." Here is how he characterized Secretary Clinton’s plan:

First of all, she wants to give amnesty [to illegal immigrants already in the United States] which is a disaster and very unfair to all the people who are waiting in line [for legal citizenship] for many years.

Amnesty in this context is the complete forgiveness of a wrong. Whether Secretary Clinton’s plan amounts to amnesty or not is a political question. The word amnesty itself, however, is often wielded as an accusation in debates over this issue, and the history and etymology of the word confirm its power to wipe the slate clean. The word comes from Greek amnestia "forgetfulness of wrong" which breaks down to a- "not" and -mnestis "remembrance."

The third and final Presidential Debate of the 2016 election signaled that the end of the campaign is near. Election Day is November 8, just a few short weeks away. This means that we will stop talking about an election and actually have one. It is important to recognize that even for those of us who thrive on verbiage and rhetoric, there is a time for all the discussion to come to an end.

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Click here to read more articles from Department of Word Lists.

Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

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