Are Trump’s Tweets, Like, Changing the Way We Think About Language?

President Trump in 2017

Over the weekend, President Trump made headlines — again — for his use of language on twitter.

In a series of defensive tweets, the president insisted that recent questions about his intelligence and fitness for office, raised in a new, critical book, were unfounded. and in the middle of it, he wrote this phrase: “throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.”

Like, really smart.

It’s something you might hear from a teenager, or someone else whose language affect moves them to overuse of that word. But the president punctuated the phrase correctly, setting the word “like” off by commas, suggesting this was not an excited utterance, but something that was thought through, and purposeful.

Ben Zimmer, a linguist, lexicographer and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, notes the president’s use of “like” in The Atlantic. He tells Detroit Today host Stephen Henderson the president uses Twitter in a way that is typical for many people who want to evoke their speaking voice in a written form.

Very often, people try to mimic their conversational style in text,” says Zimmer. ”But it’s still unusual to see that word ‘like’ thrown in there… even for Trump who makes lots of peculiar choices in his tweeting.”

Trump also uses Twitter to launch fresh attacks on his political enemies, and did so with a new foe, Steve Bannon, over the past week.

Sloppy Steve.“ 

Thomas Jefferson once allegedly said his political rival John Adams had a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Harsh words from a founding father many laud for his depth of thought and nuance.

It’s a good example to cite when we consider how often our leaders resort to insults when it comes to their political enemies. But the Jefferson quote is a far cry from where we are today. President Trump has called his rivals “Crooked Hillary,” ”Little Marco,” and “Low-Energy Jeb.” Now he’s going after Steve Bannon.

A school-yard insult for a man who helped him reach the White House. But is there really much difference between punching your political rivals with high-minded language versus remedial English? Does it achieve the same end, that is to diminish those you want to curtail?

Detroit Today is joined by presidential historian Jeffery Engel to talk about the president’s use of language to dismantle his foes.

To hear from Engel and Zimmer on Detroit Today, click on the audio player above.

Image credit: Jake Neher/WDET

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