November 08, 2006

Vote for the woman whose mother uses this verb

Claire McCaskill, who ran successfully in Missouri for a US Senate seat and beat out incumbent Jim Talent yesterday, said to Renée Montagne on NPR this morning that part of the explanation for her success among the typically conservative people in the rural areas of the state was that her mother was a native of the Ozarks, and is so rural that "she's the kind of woman that says ‘hornswoggle’ as part of her ordinary vocabulary." The inference from having the verb lexeme hornswoggle to being appealing to Missouri farmers was apparently supposed to be completely obvious, and for a moment I thought that was completely nuts. Why, I thought, would anyone imagine that a person was worth voting for because her mother knew a certain lexical item? Let's say I have the word psephologist in my active vocabulary; does that help you in deciding whether you would cast a vote for my son Calvin?

But I guess the reasoning goes like this: "McCaskill's mother uses hornswoggle; I use hornswoggle; hornswoggle is rare or unknown in standard dialects, but familiar in dialects of rural people like me; so the mother is probably a rural person like me; so the mother probably has similar values to mine; and mothers teach their values to their daughters; so the daughter probably has them too; so a vote for her will probably be a vote for someone with values like my own." Far from being a foolproof reasoning chain, but not entirely as irrational as at first one might think. Voting is so often a matter of looking at a brief resumé of a person you don't know, plus some repellent negative allegations about them in an opponent's TV ads, crossing your fingers, and hoping the electee won't turn out to be just another rascal. Using a statistically unusual lexical item as a possible indicator of membership in a social group with values you like might be one small way to make the process less irrational.

Of course, the sociolinguistic judgment about the item in question may not be right; as Ben Zimmer remarked to me at the water cooler in Language Log Plaza this morning:

I don't know if "hornswoggle" is such a reliable sociolinguistic index. Ann Coulter, who hails from New Canaan, CT, once said that President Bush has shown "how easy it is to hornswoggle liberals." Somehow I don't think those rural McCaskill voters would feel much social or political kinship with Coulter.

How would a farm housewife in Wright County, MO, react to a quintessentially urban blonde bombshell who makes her living as rabid liberal-baiter, hostile TV personality, fire-breathing columnist, self-parodist, and ultraconservative performance artist? I don't know. Some psephologist is probably working on it.

Update: We put an intern onto checking Coulter's biography, and it turns out her mother was born in Paducah, Kentucky! Maybe you can take the girl out of the country but you can't take the country out of the girl. We are now trying to lure Coulter to Philadelphia so we can get her into our basement sociolinguistics lab, where we have... umm... equipment suitable for robust and forceful interrogation. We use it for eliciting information about speakers' dialect backgrounds. More news as we manage to extract it.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 8, 2006 11:30 AM