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From AJR,   August/September 2008  issue

More Than a Notion?   

How Barack Obama is influencing our vocabulary.


By Lee Thornton
     

When I reported for duty as interim dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism in June, it wasn't lost on me that I was following in the wake of the estimable Tom Kunkel. Readers of this column know that Tom left the college that month to become president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. Our loss here at the University of Maryland is truly its gain.

But something else wasn't lost on me: the fact that the college had always been led by men: Ray Hiebert, John Martin, Ben Holman, Reese Cleghorn and Tom. My interim status notwithstanding, I am the first woman to serve as dean.

Perhaps the long months of watching Sen. Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination sensitized me to that fact. For very different reasons of course, her campaign and that of Sen. Barack Obama heightened the political senses of many millions of Americans, me included. Of course we watched the Republican contest as well, but it was soon over, and the fun was in continuing to turn the pages of the Hillary v. Barack mystery.

I became attuned not only to the messages of the two very similar messages but to the words they selected to tell their stories. As any journalist knows, words matter. Word selection in telling a story matters. And I made a discovery about Barack Obama that may say something about how he has infiltrated the thoughts of some journalists. Granted, I may listen to speakers a little differently than the average person and I come by that honestly, having earned a couple of degrees in communication.

To my mind, Obama is a markedly different speaker in interviews and stump speeches (and, yes, debates). Of course, you say. But I'm not talking about content here. I'm talking about the candidate's vocal crutches vocal fillers, sounds like "um" and "ah."

Obama leans heavily on both, which makes him no different from most of us. Listen to many younger people and you'll hear that they depend a lot on the word "like." For others the words "you know" and "you know what I'm saying" are habitual vocal fillers. We use a filler when we're composing, thinking about what we're going to say next. When speaking, humans tend to avoid the vacuum of even a second of silence.

Obama has an unusual filler the connective "and." He draws out the vowel in the word, thus giving it two functions not just to indicate connection between parts of a sentence, but to allow him time to order the words he'll choose next.

There's another peculiarity, one that I noticed early on and one I have heard everywhere since in the speech of strangers, colleagues, family and friends. Even the news media seem to have bought into Obama's interesting use of a particular word. The word? "Notion."

Listen to Obama and you'll frequently hear him say "this notion of;" "the notion that." Often I've thought the subtext of his meaning was that whatever the subject, it was not worthy of serious attention that the subject was just an impression or something imagined. Often, when I've heard the candidate use the word, it seemed to me to be in a dismissive manner. The dictionary, after all, tells us that a notion suggests an idea that is not resolved by analysis or reflection. It further tells us that the word may suggest the capricious or the accidental.

It occurred to me months ago that the word "notion" is not one that I use hardly ever. I'm much more likely to use the word "idea" or "theory" or "belief." Most people who surround me in everyday life would likely also use those words. Until Barack Obama. Then, suddenly, it seemed to me, I began hearing the word everywhere. Fascinated, I started taking notes and saving articles. Here are just a half-dozen examples recorded during the month of June:

On June 14, Eleanor Clift of "The McLaughlin Group" wasn't "buying the notion that some women are always going to be dependent on their husbands."

The next day, Father's Day, a child psychologist on Washington's WTOP news radio spoke of "the notion of listening to your children; this notion of spending time with your children." (The notion of spending time with your children?)

The same day, ABC News' Jonathan Karl asked, "Is there any indication that the British will continue with this notion of pulling troops out of Iraq?"

On the June 22 edition of the "ABC Sunday Night News," anchor Peter Beutel asked, "What about this notion of peak oil?"

Bill Kristol on "Fox News Sunday" on June 29 talked about the "plausible notion" that voters allow candidates to change their minds on issues.

On the occasion of the retirement of Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. on June 30, Post media writer Howard Kurtz wrote, "It's hard to argue with the notion that newspapers need more mass appeal and a bit more self-promotion."

What does it all mean? Maybe nothing. On the other hand, it may mean that Barack Obama's speech pattern has gotten into our brains even those of conservative commentators and reporters all unawares. And if that's true, my theory may be more than a notion.

Lee Thornton, Ph.D., is interim dean and Richard Eaton Chair in Broadcast at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and president of AJR. Her master's degree is in Rhetoric and Public Address.