Sarah Palin's Language in the VP Debate
Sarah Palin's language in the vice presidential debate is a natural topic for this blog, which covers both women and language.
Palin's answers were sprinkled with folksy colloquialisms - phrases like "you betcha," "a heck of a lot," "darn right," "doggone it," "the tax thing," and "man" (as an interjection). She dropped consonants, as in the word "pushin'," and she mispronounced "nuclear." At times her informality covered a lack of substance, as in this response to a question on the Constitution's provisions about the vice president: "We have a lot of flexibility in there." Does language like this help or hurt the cause of women's progress?
Responses in the media were instructive. Bill Maher called Palin's language "corny." From the right, Rich Lowry commented that Palin's presentation, including winking, no doubt caused many men to "sit up a little straighter" as she sent "starbursts right through the screen." Neither is of these is the sort of response that most professional women would like to generate in a nationally significant debate.
A woman physician I know found Palin's informality "unprofessional" and "embarrassing." So I tried to imagine various men using similar language. What if Joe Biden had talked that way? Or former presidents Clinton, Bush I, or Reagan? Each would have seemed comically unprofessional, more like a breathless teenager than a president. And if Barack Obama talked like Palin, he would probably be dismissed as a lightweight or worse.
In discussing education, George W. Bush once warned against "the soft bigotry of low expectations." We law professors advise our students to avoid colloquialisms in professional discourse. Expecting less professionalism from a female vice presidential candidate than from other professionals fuels soft bigotry against women. And that does not help women's cause.
--The Word Aficionado