Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Choice Words from the State of the Union

Tuesday night's State of the Union address by President Obama provided a fresh round of political phrase-making. As members of Congress went on a bipartisan date night, Obama called for investments to win the future and meet our Sputnik moment by doing big things. Here's a look at some of the memorable words and phrases that came out of the speech.

date night: The idea of having Republicans and Democrats sit side by side, rather than on opposite sides of the aisle, is credited to the centrist think tank Third Way and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.). On January 23, Annie Groer of AOL Politics Daily provided a humorous description for the seating arrangement: "Get ready for Comity Central, or something approaching a massive Congressional date night." CNN and others followed suit with the "date night" label, as members of Congress began announcing who their bipartisan "dates" for the night would be. Some preferred to call it "prom night."

win the future: Obama used the word future 15 times in the speech, mostly in the context of "winning the future" (which was, in fact, the official title of the speech). By driving this catchphrase home, Obama could have been positioning it as a 2012 campaign slogan in the making. One small hitch: Republicans have some claim on the phrase, too. Newt Gingrich called his 2005 book Winning the Future, and two years later the domain name winthefuture.com was bought up by a Republican activist in Oregon. (The site currently redirects to the Oregon Republican Party.) Gingrich didn't invent the expression, of course. One historical precedent comes from World War II, when Archibald MacLeish, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and FDR's Librarian of Congress, said, "We who win this war will win the future."

investment: Much of the "pre-game analysis" about the State of the Union revolved around Republican predictions that Obama would use the word investment as a euphemism for spending. As I told NPR's Morning Edition in a preview of the speech, Democrats have preferred talking about investment rather than spending, one of the "framing" suggestions made by the left-leaning linguist George Lakoff as a way to counteract the Republican message machine. In the speech, Obama used spend or spending 14 times and invest or investment 13 times, but spending tended to refer to budget items that needed to be cut or frozen, while future spending initiatives were invariably called investments, the friendlier term.

out-innovate, out-educate, out-build: This trio of verbs came at a key part in the speech, as Obama called on Americans' competitive spirit to "win the future" through renewed attention to technology, education, and infrastructure: "We need to out-innovate, outeducate and outbuild the rest of the world." The words illustrate the endless productivity of the out-X formation for various kinds of outdoing. (The out- prefix can even attach to nouns and adjectives: see my Word Routes post on out-physical for more.)

Sputnik moment: Obama followed his Energy Secretary Steven Chu in declaring that the United States stands at a new "Sputnik moment" in the development of such technologies as clean energy and high-speed rail. The idea has been percolating for several years now: Robert J. Samuelson of Newsweek and Mort Zuckerman of U.S. News & World Report both used the expression in 2005. It's unclear whether Americans listening to Obama will be moved by the historical reference, particularly those too young to appreciate the threat that the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite represented during the Cold War era. Obama continued the astronautical allusions by referring to new energy innovation projects as the "Apollo projects of our time."

we do big things: Obama told an anecdote about the Pennsylvania company that helped rescue the Chilean miners with a new kind of drilling technology, quoting one of the employees as saying, "We proved that Center Rock is a little company, but we do big things." Obama then borrowed that pithy phrase as the tagline that closed the speech, once again providing a call to future action, even while the country's bleak economic conditions demands greater austerity.

For more analysis of Obama's rhetoric, see my dialog with linguist John McWhorter on Bloggingheads.

Update: And here's a bit more, from my appearance on WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show."

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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