Dept. of Word Lists

Words Heard at the Democratic National Convention

The 2016 Democratic National Convention, which was held in Philadelphia, was a stark contrast to the Republican Convention the week before. The Republican Convention had political pundits describing that convention's view of America as dystopian. Derived from utopia, a word for an imaginary paradise where all systems work perfectly, a dystopia is the flipside of this: an imaginary, nightmarish place.

While they did not exactly paint a picture of a utopia, this list of twenty interesting vocabulary words heard at the Democratic National Convention contains such positive words as empathy and thrive. The following is an exploration of some of the more playful and interesting word choices.

Ambit

Former President Bill Clinton used ambit to describe Hillary Clinton's role when she was a New York Senator: "She became the de facto economic development officer for the area of New York outside the ambit of New York City." Ambit is a word for surroundings and has come to metaphorically also refer to a sphere of influence. Ambit is from Latin ambitus, which means "a going around" but more interesting than this, this sense is also at the heart of the word ambition.

Ambition once referred to "a going around" to solicit votes and this sense of the word was extended to all the things one does when one is soliciting votes -- striving for favor, using flattery, exercising a thirst for popularity. Although this is the dark side of ambition, ambit is a very appropriate word to use at a political convention.

Bombast

Often, the ambitious, when they get where they are going, will be full of bombastic talk about all they have accomplished. Bombast is inflated, bragging, but ultimately empty, language. This word was used to describe Donald Trump's language by both Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders in their speeches to the conventioneers in Philadelphia, as when the latter said:

This election is about which candidate understands the real problems facing this country and has offered real solutions – not just bombast, fear-mongering, name-calling and divisiveness.

For such a lofty word, its origins could not be more humble. Bombast originally referred to the stuffing or padding that was put into clothes or upholstery to prop them up, round them out or fill them in. The direct source, bombace, is from Old French and meant "cotton wadding" -- the material most likely used for such stuffing. Bombyx means "silk" in both Latin and Greek, but in Greek the word also came to mean "cotton." By the 1580s, only twenty years after the word is attested in its original use, the metaphorical use arose, and people were mocking rhetoric that was puffed up and devoid of substance.

Rambunctious

If you engage in too much bombastic speech, the public you represent may start to get angry at you, and they may start to act rambunctious. Rambunctious means out of control, but not usually in a threatening manner. Rambunctious can be a pleasant, not-too-serious way to refer to physical activity that threatens to get out of hand but doesn't -- like brothers or puppies wrestling with each other. In President Clinton's speech about his wife Hillary, he referred to her "rambunctious brothers." Rambunctious even sounds like a word filled with energetic horsing around. Rambunctious comes from rumbustious, which was a part of a set of words that are no longer in use but might be due for a revival. These include rambumptious, "conceited, self assertive" ramgumptious "shrewd, bold, rash" and rambuskious "rough." After an entire week, the speakers at the Democratic Convention were certainly running out of ways to call Donald Trump "conceited" and they might have appreciated a word like "rambumptious"!

Demagogue

One of the words that Donald Trump was called during the convention was demagogue. This quote from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a good example of how the word is used today:

I've come here to say: We must put them [our differences] aside for the good of our country. And we must unite around the candidate who can defeat a dangerous demagogue. I believe it's the duty of all American citizens to make our voices heard by voting in this election.

A demagogue, in modern usage, is a leader (or a would-be leader) who "appeals to popular desires and prejudices rather than using rational argument." If there is one word that can sum up how the Democrats portrayed Donald Trump during the convention, demagogue is the word. Whether they used the word itself or not, it was clear in speech after speech that this was how the Democrats see their opponent. The word demogogue itself comes from Greek and meant "popular leader," from demos "people" and agogos "leader." From the elements that make it up, one might not think a demagogue is such a bad thing to be; more than one presidential candidate has referred to themselves as "a man of the people." Historically, though, demagogue has almost always had bad connotations, also meaning "leader of the mob," for example, and generally indicating a "political panderer."

The Democratic National Convention saw a woman accept a major party's nomination for president for the first time in history. Whatever happens in the election itself, this is a major milestone worth celebrating. It also opens up a few interesting language puzzles. We already know that a female president would be addressed as "Madam President." but still unsettled is what her husband Bill Clinton would be called. First Man? First Gentleman? In this particular case, do any of these titles outrank the title he currently holds, Mr. President? Like the results of the election itself, this puzzle remains to be solved.


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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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Comments from our users:

Friday July 29th 2016, 11:34 PM
Comment by: Burgers And Chips (Australia)Top 10 Commenter
lots of good hard words
Wednesday February 15th 2017, 2:15 PM
Comment by: Juwan Parker
I agree.

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