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26 Jan, 2009 11:32

Plain words: the new language of politics

Plain words: the new language of politics

Raising a few eyebrows through speechmaking has become commonplace in the last decade. RT looks at how the phenomenon is playing out in three of the world’s leading powers and the reasons behind it.

With politicians seeking a more down-with-the-people image and mass media hunting down comments in the most unexpected places, political rhetoric has increasingly moved away from heightened oratory towards language which can be heard on the streets.

The wonderfully liberating new information technology which has flooded the international media scene over the last decade means that one accidentally-uttered comment by a top figure can become the political topic of the day.

Nevertheless, greater accessibility to political speech cannot be solely held responsible for such a noticeable turn for the common, even though, it was precisely because of easier access to information that Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was revealed to have been using the “f” word in his conversations with David Milliband.

Language, however, is above all a social phenomenon and any overwhelming change in its use is, of course, demonstrative of social change.


The tough-talking Prime Minister Vladimir Putin marked one of his first spectacular appearances in the public eye with a controversial statement. Talking about Chechen terrorists, Putin sternly said that Russia will “zap them in their toilets.”

“Putinisms” have been extensively responsible for making Russia’s diplomatic language less sketchy and more black-and-white. Compared to previous Russian governments, the former president’s style of speech has the ability to easily alter between threats, jokes and flirtations while moving away from stern facts.

What some in the western media refer to as “Putin’s outbursts” have granted him ratings which other world leaders can only dream of. When leaving his post as Russia’s president, Putin enjoyed an approval rating of 80 percent and his ability to speak in a popular language is at least partially responsible for this.

Russian politicians in the last decade have also become more directly communicative with the population at large: live Q&A sessions between Putin and people from every corner of the country and President Dimitry Medvedev’s video blog are responsible for dictating a more laconic image of the politician. This image, in turn, dictates the language which is spoken.


“If you really want to become an Islamist radical and go as far as getting yourself circumcised, I recommend you come to Moscow … we'll do it so that nothing ever grows there,” Putin told a journalist after an EU-Russia summit in Brussels in 2002.

Meeting reporters in 2003, Putin said jailed Yukos oil company chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky's offer to pay back taxes from the 1990s had come too late. “One must always obey the law,” Putin said, “and not only when you're grabbed in a certain place.”

When asked by a journalist in 2006 about Russia's possible support for sanctions against Iran, Putin denied accusations that Tehran was developing nuclear weapons, saying, “If a grandmother had certain reproductive organs, she would be a grandfather.”

During a summit of the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries in Germany in 2007, Putin attacked the United States and Europe and described himself as the world's only “pure democrat.” “After the death of Mahatma Gandhi,” he said, “there's no one to talk to.”

During a news conference in 2008, Putin criticized Western election observers by quoting a well-known line from a popular television crime drama. “They're trying to teach us something!” he said. “Well, let them teach their wives how to make cabbage soup!”

“Sorry to be crude but we did not pick these prices out of our nose,” Putin said when explaining why Russia raised the price of the natural gas it exports to neighbouring Ukraine.


British politics has extensively become much more “down with the kids” ever since “New Labour” took office in 1997. Dr. Damian King, an independent political analyst, points out that one of the key aims of the newly-elected party was to “ride the wave of popular culture.”

Vivid gestures, designed to move away from “rule Britannica” to “cool Britannia” involved, amongst other things, inviting Noel Gallagher from the band Oasis to visit Downing Street and Tony Blair actively supporting football in general and Newcastle United in particular.

Language during this time of active surge towards social change became almost a halo of dropping formality. Compared to the stiff rhetoric of the Tory government, the simple and flowing speech of New Labour was designed to exhibit a social and governmental thaw.

On the other hand, as Dr. King points out, this was not something new for the British society: in the 1960’s, Harold Wilson and his Labour government tried to associate themselves with The Beatles precisely to boost popular appeal.


“I think most people who have dealt with me, think I'm a pretty straight sort of guy, and I am.” November 1997, when Labour was accused of changing its policy on tobacco advertising after accepting £1m from formula one's Bernie Ecclestone.

“A day like today is not a day for soundbites, really. But I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders.” Shortly before the Good Friday agreement, April 1998.

“I can only go one way; I've not got a reverse gear.” Conference speech, September 2003.

“It's not a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money.” Rejecting higher tax rates for the rich during a Newsnight interview in 2001.

“At least I know she isn't going to run off with the guy next door.” Alluding to Cherie's relationship with Brown, September 2006.

“Is my face bovvered? Face? Bovvered?” He turns the tables on comedian Catherine Tate during a Comic Relief interview in March 2007.


Desperate times call for desperate means. One of the most indicative examples of this copy-book truth is that desperate times in U.S. politics (election campaigns, wars, and times of crisis) are land marked by something which Robert McHenry, ex-editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica, refers to as “the cheapening of language.”

McHenry also notes that a digression towards knit-picking rhetoric in a “down with the kids” manner gives each side of the U.S. political spectrum the opportunity for “self righteous indignation” and a chance to avoid talking about “anything that actually matters.”

Despite this, “institutional” language has remained practically unaltered in the U.S. Listening to President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, one can’t help but wonder whether we have plunged back into the 19th century.

U.S. inaugural speeches have historically been marked by heavy flamboyant diction and an unhurried metric quality. Which, of course, serves another purpose altogether: to show the unity and historic congruence of America. Language, the mighty tool that it is, is equipped to do this too.


“I've now been in 57 states… I think one left to go.” Obama speaking at a campaign event in Beaverton, Oregon.

“Why can't I just eat my waffle?” response after being asked a foreign policy question by a reporter while visiting a diner in Pennsylvania.

“Come on! I just answered, like, eight questions,” frustrated retort when exasperated by reporters after a news conference.

“You're likeable enough, Hillary,” said during a Democratic debate.

“In case you missed it, this week, there was a tragedy in Kansas. Ten thousand people died, an entire town destroyed,” speaking of a Kansas tornado which killed 12 people.


Anna Bogdanova, RT